- Richard Lapchick, Contributing Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
I remember talking to Dean Smith about Charlie Scott nearly 25 years after Scott became the first African-American scholarship athlete at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Coach Smith had called me after he read that the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, which I had founded at Northeastern University, had started a program that was using former athletes to train young people to deal more effectively with racial tensions and conflict. It was called Project Teamwork and went on to be called "America's most successful violence prevention program." Coach Smith was inquiring about it because he thought Scott would be a perfect leader for Project Teamwork. Amazingly, Smith made the call during the week that UNC was about to play in the Sweet 16 at the 1990 NCAA Tournament. What coach calls someone during that week to talk about a player who had left his program decades before?
I was a college senior when Scott enrolled at North Carolina, and Joe Lapchick, my dad, had just ended a 50-year career in basketball. He said that Dean Smith was the perfect coach to break the racial barrier at UNC; and that from what he had read, Charlie Scott was a great choice. As a New York City product, Scott was well-known to my father, the former coach of St. John's and the Knicks. Scott was not only a great player, but was also valedictorian as a high school senior. That was unusual at the time for a student-athlete, whether he was white or black.
Nigerian Edwin Okoroma, who integrated the soccer team in 1963, was UNC's first black student-athlete. Willie Cooper played on the freshman basketball squad from 1964 to '65 before deciding to leave the team. However, in 1966, Scott became the first African-American scholarship athlete in North Carolina's history, and the first great African-American player in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
When he came to UNC in 1961, Smith was persuaded by the assistant pastor at his church to actively pursue and recruit an African-American player. Smith was to become a great advocate for African-American students and student-athletes. In doing so in the early 1960s, Smith faced racial intolerance. He also had to find a player who met UNC's rigid academic standards. Smith was one of the few coaches at that time who pointed out that the SAT exam was biased against African-Americans. Smith found a gem in Scott, but to get him, he had to compete against Duke, NC State, Wake Forest and Davidson.
Scott, who had left New York City to finish high school at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina, began to develop trust in Smith during his recruiting trip, when the coach asked him if he wanted to attend a service at his church. I was a committed Catholic boy who at about this time attended church in Chapel Hill. I was told the church was integrated, but I stopped going after I saw the African-Americans attending the mass line up for communion after the white people left. But Smith's church was one of the few fully integrated churches in the area. That impressed Scott. While most casual acquaintances and fans called Scott "Charlie," he preferred "Charles." Smith always addressed him as "Charles." Choosing North Carolina was a slam dunk for Scott. He enrolled and began defining the modern-day UNC basketball legacy being built by Smith.
This was an era when freshmen were ineligible for the varsity. Scott was a star as soon as he got the chance in his sophomore year in the 1967-68 season. He refused to allow racist remarks from fans on the road to take away from his game and his team.
Scott led the Tar Heels to their second and third consecutive NCAA Final Four appearances in 1968 and 1969. During the NCAA Tournament in 1969, Scott scored 32 points and hit a jumper at the buzzer to beat Davidson and send the Tar Heels to the Final Four.
His junior and senior years were marked by perhaps the biggest slights of Scott's career. Widely regarded as the best player in the ACC, he was not given player of the year honors in either season. He was passed over in both years when the award was given to John Roche of South Carolina.
"That was about the only time in college that I felt things were done in a prejudicial manner," Scott told a North Carolina newspaper, the News & Record. "And what concerned me more was how the media handled it. Nobody ever said anything about it, never challenged what took place. To me, that's just another form of hypocrisy."
Scott had hardly been immune to the sting of racism. Before enrolling at UNC, Scott and two of his friends at Laurinburg Institute, his high school in North Carolina, went for a walk off campus. Some police officers made them get into a squad car as suspects and took them to a house where a white woman claimed she had been the victim of a gang rape by three African-American men. It was a horrifying moment. Scott recalled seeing bystanders holding shotguns. The students' fear was palpable as they waited for the woman's verdict, knowing that such identification had been a death sentence for other young African-American boys and men throughout American history. Fortunately for Scott and his friends, the woman said they were not the ones who raped her and they were released.
Scott refused to join an African-American players' boycott of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, believing it would have been counterproductive. He won a gold medal and became only the second Tar Heel to play on an Olympic basketball squad.
He was a two-time All-American and an All-ACC selection three times, while averaging 22.1 points per game at UNC. He is the fifth all-time leading scorer in Tar Heels history (he is about to be passed by Tyler Hansbrough), and was one of a dozen North Carolina players on the ACC's 50th Anniversary Team.
Scott chose to start his pro career in the American Basketball Association for the Virginia Squires, where he was rookie of the year in 1971 and a two-time All-Star in his two seasons in the league. Scott played in the NBA from 1972 to 1980 after he left the ABA. He was an NBA All-Star in his first three seasons and helped Boston win a championship in 1976.
Scott's post-playing career started with selling high-end shoes to celebrities before he joined the sports apparel company Champion as a marketing director. When Smith made that phone call during Sweet 16 week 18 years ago, the position on Project Teamwork had already been filled, and Scott was happy with his career. But the call came about because Smith and Charles Scott had already broken barriers together on Tobacco Road.
Richard E. Lapchick is the Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 13 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the Director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He has joined ESPN.com as a regular commentator on issues of diversity in sport. Horacio Ruiz, a DeVos graduate, contributed to this article which is an adaptation of a chapter of Lapchick's new book, "100 Pioneers: African-Americans who Broke Color Barriers in Sport" (Fitness Information Technology Press, West Virginia University, 2008).