Trailblazer: Charles Scott, Carolina’s first black scholarship athlete

Charles Scott doesn’t think of himself as a pioneer. More than 40 years after he enrolled in Chapel Hill, Carolina’s first black scholarship athlete simply thinks of himself as an alumnus. “I’d never put a label on myself when I went out there, to think I was playing as a pioneer or a trailblazer,” he said. “That was never my frame of mind as a player at North Carolina.”

In fact, Scott’s recruitment at Carolina – and other schools – never centered around race. “It was a known fact, so it wasn’t something that we had to talk about,” he said. “To the credit of all those schools, they didn’t want to make that the agenda of why they were recruiting me, for me to be the first black athlete.”

Scott was interested in simply playing college basketball. If he was going to be the first black scholarship athlete at a school, then so be it, but it wasn’t his main objective. “Coach (Dean) Smith never talked to me about race when he recruited me,” Scott said. “He talked to me about coming to the University of North Carolina, playing at the University of North Carolina.

Photo of Charlie Scott dribbling a basketball.

Charlie Scott on the Carmichael hardwood.

Those were the conversations. What were my plans for later in life, what did I want to major in, those general conversations. Coach Smith never talked to me about ‘You’re coming here to be the first black scholarship athlete.’”

While Scott was in town for a visit, Smith invited Scott to attend Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. “That was a change in format,” Scott remembers. “All the other schools that I visited, that was never on the agenda; it was basically the school, the campuses and the program itself. Coach Smith did ask me to go to church with him, and I did, and that was one of the things that he did that showed me the difference in his personality.”

With more than 40 years of hindsight, Smith’s invitation is viewed as a turning point in race relations in North Carolina. But Scott doesn’t think the legendary head coach was doing anything out of the ordinary – for him.

“I understood what we as a society were going through, but coach Smith never made that part of his recruiting ledger,” he said. “He asked me, did I want to go to church with him, because that’s where he was going, not that it would be a social event. He did it because I was on campus on that Sunday. He said, ‘I’ll be going to church in the morning. Would you want to go to church with me?’ I said, ‘Sure, I’ll go.’ He never did anything to make a statement on my part. It was just him being his normal self, and I think that is more the beauty of coach Smith than anything else. He didn’t do anything to make a social statement to me; it was him being his normal self, his normal character and personality that he wanted you to understand.”

Smith did something that won Scott over at Carolina. Rather than have the stars of the team show the recruit around campus, Smith opted to have younger players host Scott. At Syracuse, for example, Dave Bing – who would graduate in 1966, before Scott would have enrolled – was Scott’s host. “When I visited North Carolina, I spent most of my time with Dick Grubar and Joe Brown, and guys that I would be playing with. I met Bobby Lewis and the guys who were there, but the time that I spent really going out was with the players I would be playing with. That, to me, was a comfort zone.”

Feeling comfortable around the players he would be playing with and liking what he saw of Smith’s personality, Scott opted to make Carolina his college choice. And though race hadn’t been a part of his recruitment, he knew what he was walking into. Animosity was directed toward him at away games — rants, derogatory statements and objects thrown toward him. “It didn’t come unexpected,” Scott said of the negative treatment he often received. “When it happened, it did not change my demeanor or surprise me, because I was in the South. I was playing basketball at a school that had one black athlete, and the rest where white. I was playing in a conference that didn’t have many black athletes.

“I understood the circumstances when I signed to play for the University of North Carolina. It was during the 60s. It was during the time of race riots, the time of sit-downs,” he said. “It was the time when change was happening in America, and I just happened to be in a situation where I was part of that change.”

Scott’s endurance wasn’t just tested in the Atlantic Coast Conference, however. He represented the United States at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, where he witnessed Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise a gloved fist during the medal ceremony after the 200-meter race. “I remember all the black athletes were brought together and were told the consequences of us demonstrating as Tommie and John had done,” he said. “I remember (IOC president) Avery Brundage once telling me and another basketball player that he was watching us, and if we did anything that was out of character, out of line, that he would send us home.” Scott averaged eight points in helping the United States to a gold medal.

Through all the adversity, Scott never asked ‘why me?’ He never felt that he was simply a basketball player, and hadn’t asked to be in the middle of a tempest of race relations. “If I didn’t want to be thrust into that role, I could have gone to other schools,” he said. “I understood the dynamics. I understood what was going to happen. When I went on the road and I was booed, and when I had things thrown at me, it wasn’t a surprise.

“I felt like I was put in the position where I could make a difference, and I felt like I was capable of doing that, so I was very lucky that I had the right ingredients and a coaching staff and players with me that allowed me to be successful in that role.”

Scott was indeed successful. He averaged 22.1 points in his career – third all-time at Carolina. His 40 points in a comeback win over Duke in 1969 are an ACC championship record. Scott’s teams won three ACC Tournament titles and reached three Final Fours. He went on to a ten-year professional career (in the ABA and NBA) and was a five-time All-Star.

“I’ve never though of myself as a pioneer,” Scott said recently. “Those are labels that other people give you.” And so we proudly name Charles Scott a Tar Heel Trailblazer.

By Turner Walston, CAROLINA the Magazine.

Published February 14, 2014.