Why you should care
Because surviving the South in the ’60s as the first Black athlete at UNC with a scholarship took a special kind of magic.
I didn’t really understand the nuances of being in the South until I got there in 1963. I went to the Laurinburg Institute, the all-Black prep school that was what Oak Hill Academy grew to be. It was a culture shock. I mean, I grew up in Harlem.
The first Saturday we were out of school, we were allowed to go downtown, and we went to the movies. We were told we had to sit upstairs, that we couldn’t sit downstairs. Another Saturday, a couple of friends and I had walked off campus to go to the grocery store. We were picked up by the police because a White woman had been raped by three Black men in the area.
They took us straight to the house — not the police station — where this woman was raped and had her try to identify if we were the ones responsible. When we got there, her husband was standing outside with a shotgun.
“Are these them?” That was the only thing they asked her.
“No, they too tall.”
When I got to the University of North Carolina in 1968 — by being the first Black scholarship athlete at that school — I was really the first Black scholarship athlete in the South.
If that woman had said we were the guys, we would’ve been shot right then. That was an experience I had in the South; it made me understand the South.
For the most part, though, college at the University of North Carolina was vastly different. But I learned and understood that there’s a difference between Black society and White society. I mean, simplistic things — things you take for granted. And I understood that I had a place in the South. In other words, Blacks had to be in their place in the South, and you had to be aware of that.
After I’d scored 40 points against Duke in the 1969 ACC championship game as a sophomore, The New York Times did an article on me, and the reporter went to a local barbershop — a White barbershop — and asked a barber, “What do you think about this Charlie Scott?”
“Oh, Charlie Scott’s great,” said the barber. “He scored 40 against Duke, and he hit the game-winning basket to beat Davidson [sending UNC to the Final Four].”
The next week at the Final Four, we played against Purdue, and Purdue beat us in the semifinals. The same reporter went back to that same barbershop and asked that same barber what he thought about Charlie Scott then.
“Well,” he said, “you know niggers always choke under pressure.”
You see, when I got to UNC in 1968 — by being the first Black scholarship athlete at that school — I was really the first Black scholarship athlete in the South; you didn’t have any Blacks playing football at that time. I was really the only Black athlete below the Mason-Dixon line then.
That was a heavy burden, but it was something that my high school coach, Frank McDuffie, Jr., understood, and he pushed me in that direction. He was the one who thought I had the academic edge, the athletic ability and all the fortitude to be able to deal with it. I had offers to go to UCLA, but [UNC] wasn’t my choice. I actually had committed to play for Lefty Driesell at Davidson, but Coach McDuffie saw the importance of, and understood the historical significance of, going to North Carolina.
After that game in ’69 — the game of my life, where I scored 28 points in the second half and missed only six shots all night on 23 attempts — all of my teammates went over to an alumni house to eat; had I gone with them, I would have been the only Black person there. But to be honest, I wasn’t invited. I didn’t even know about the [postgame dinner] until they came back. I ended up going out with our assistant coach, John Lars, to have a hamburger. Everybody else was out celebrating but me.
You’ve got to realize, we’d go to restaurants — places where Coach Dean Smith had made dinner reservations before — and when we’d go as a team and they’d see me, we’d be told we had to leave. I didn’t want to put the team in that position anymore. This had happened to us a couple of times on road trips.
That was a burden that was put on me. That was something that those gentlemen — my teammates — didn’t have to be involved in.
For me, I just felt great about what I’d accomplished, winning the Most Valuable Player of the tournament, about us winning, but it was more relief that I didn’t screw up. It makes you angry, though, and it’s probably one of the reasons that, when given the opportunity to prove someone wrong, I jumped at it.
To be honest with you, the years I played varsity were never enjoyable; it was always a release. The weight of being given an opportunity to do something that’s going to affect the whole Black race, and you know it’s an opportunity not given to many. A lot to bear.
I can understand why Joe Louis was a quiet champion for social justice during his time. When I went to the ’68 Olympics — right after Tommie Smith and John Carlos were kicked out of the Olympic Village — they had the Black athletes meet with Jesse Owens, and he told us that he wanted us to take a different approach to highlighting the social issues in the country at the time. The majority of athletes there hissed and booed him — because that was not our generation.
But even in Joe Louis’ generation, I feel like the United States had a moral backbone. I don’t think that moral backbone is there anymore; that moral character that we used to stand behind has been lost in the last couple of years. Moral character and leadership is something Coach Smith preached.
As the years have gone on, I do get satisfaction for what I did for the lineage of people who came after me — people like Bob McAdoo, Bill Chamberlain, Phil Ford, Walter Davis, Michael Jordan, James Worthy, Danny Green, Ty Lawson, and the list goes on.
I look at the landscape today and I see guys making lifetime money, which is good. Obligation and responsibility mean different things to different people, though. But as athletes, we have a big obligation to be more, to do more. I think Colin Kaepernick understands that; Eric Reid understands that.
As told to Mark W. Wright
Charlie Scott was inducted into the College (2015) and Professional (2018) Basketball Halls of Fame.