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Q&A: Charlie Scott recounts time at UNC as school's first Black scholarship athlete


Charlie Scott is pictured during the 1968 men's basketball season. Photos from DTH Archives. 

In 1966, Charlie Scott became the first Black scholarship athlete at North Carolina as a part of the men's basketball team. Recruited by Dean Smith, Scott was an instant star for the varsity squad and led the program to two Final Fours.

Scott won an Olympic gold medal in 1968 and an NBA championship with the Boston Celtics in 1976. In 2018, he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Assistant Sports Editor Lucas Thomae caught up with Scott over the phone to discuss his time at UNC. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

The Daily Tar Heel: When you were just 15 years old, you moved from New York City to play basketball at the Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina. What was it like making that transition to the South?

Charlie Scott: I really enjoyed it for the most part because I hadn't lived by myself before.

I got to go down with several of my friends from New York who also left to play at Laurinburg. I had never been to North Carolina, so that was a quite new experience for me.

I remember one time, my first weekend there, we were allowed to go off campus. I went to a movie theater with my friends and paid my money, I went to walk in, and the ticket lady said, "Where you going? You've got to go upstairs."

And that's the first time I realized that Blacks were not allowed to sit downstairs at the movie theaters. That was my first experience in the South.

DTH: Few college basketball teams were integrated at that time, but you became a top recruiting target for several of the premier programs in North Carolina. What did your recruiting process look like?

CS: Lefty Driesell of Davidson College was the first one to recruit me.

Lefty treated me as a friend, and we're still friends. And after I had unofficially committed to Davidson, he let me pick out the other four guys in the recruiting class that would've gone with me.

Davidson was a top-5 team in the nation. It was ranked higher than Duke and North Carolina State, and North Carolina wasn't ranked at that time — they were 16-11.

Sometimes, I would go with my high school coach to watch ACC basketball games on Saturday. I'll never forget watching the UNC games and seeing Billy Cunningham get the rebound, dribble all the way up the court, shoot it and run all the way back down. I would always think to myself, "I would never want to play with that team."

DTH: Then what swung you to change your mind and play for Dean Smith at North Carolina?

CS: Coach Smith wasn't the most important reason I came to North Carolina.

I mean, the school and players were important, but Coach wasn't at the top of the list of my favorite coaches. But Larry Brown — I was crazy about Larry Brown. He was the assistant coach that really recruited me, and he was from New York City.

I could relate to Brown. We talked about New York City basketball, about Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown and all these guys he'd played with. He was the only person out of all my recruiting trips that I could relate to and talk basketball to.

DTH: Brown went on to become one of the greatest coaches in college and NBA history. But in 1966, he was just starting his career as the coach of UNC's freshman team. What did you learn from him in your first year?

CS: Larry Brown had a complaint about every basketball player that ever played for him.

David Thompson scored 28 points per game off his jump shot. Larry wanted him to drive more. Larry coached Allen Iverson, but he was always trying to add something to his game.

On the freshman team, I was a blank page fresh out of high school. So, Larry did all the things with me that he always wanted to do with a basketball player. He was always a teacher.

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DTH: What did he add to your game?

CS: How can I put it? He taught me how to play white basketball.

One-on-one was thought of as more of a Black style. It was about speed, agility, leaping. White basketball involved learning how to use plays, learning how to go back door, learning how to come off a pick and get a jump shot. That's what Larry taught me.

DTH: As a sophomore you made your debut as UNC's first Black varsity basketball player. How much pressure did you feel at the time?

CS: I didn't really get to enjoy college. Everything with me just felt like a relief. It was either failure or success — there was no middle ground.

And, really, the pressure didn't just come from me being Black. The pressure came from the year before when the team won 26 games and went to the NCAA Final Four for the first time in Coach Smith's career. Bobby Lewis was the only player who left the team and I took his place. So, if the team didn't go back to the Final Four, who do you think everybody was going to look at?

DTH: That year you led UNC back to the Final Four and you did it again in 1969. As a senior in 1970, you led the ACC with 27.1 points per game. But still, you never won ACC Player of the Year. How do you remember the media's portrayal of you at that time?

CS: A lot of people at that time, even newspaper reporters, felt like Black players shouldn't have been in the ACC. 

I'm a very logical person. I was a first-team All-American. John Roche, who won the Player of the Year over me twice, was not first-, second- or third-team All-America in 1969. We had also won the ACC again that year. I scored 40 points in the ACC Tournament final, which is still a record for the championship game.

This isn't about John Roche — we later played together in the NBA. But I always felt like sports was the one place where what you put in should be the reciprocal of what you receive. I just felt like I was being cheated in the ACC, and I said it at the time.

DTH: Another career highlight of yours was winning a gold medal for Team USA at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Those games are probably best known for Tommie Smith and John Carlos doing the Black Power salute on the podium. What was it like competing during such a tumultuous time in America?

CS: John Carlos and I actually went to junior high together, and I used to beat him every year in the 60-yard dash. So, I knew him going into the games.

But making the Olympic team was a great thing, and I felt good because I was representing the University of North Carolina and Coach Smith. I had actually talked about boycotting, and Coach and I had a very good philosophical conversation about it.

He said he understood if I was to boycott, but he thought that I would be doing more of a disservice to the people of North Carolina. And so I went to the Olympics with the concept that I wanted to be someone that made a difference.


@dthsports |

Lucas Thomae

Lucas Thomae is the 2023-24 sports managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as an assistant sports editor and summer editor. Lucas is a senior pursuing a major in journalism and media with a minor in data science.