Cooper helped pave the way for blacks

Elm City native broke the color barrier in 1964 with the UNC freshman team

Staff WriterMarch 15, 2009 

Four decades ago, Charlie Scott twice led the University of North Carolina to the NCAA basketball Final Four. He was a dazzling guard, a two-time All-America and, as many ACC fans know, the school's first black scholarship athlete.

Before Scott arrived in Chapel Hill in 1966, however, there was Willie Cooper.

Two years earlier -- in 1964 -- North Carolina coach Dean Smith gave Cooper a long-shot chance to be the first African-American to play varsity basketball at an ACC-member school in the state of North Carolina.

"He was the one we wanted," said Smith, who is 78 and now retired.

Yet, Cooper's story is one that has gone largely untold.

Cooper, now 63, attended UNC, played freshman basketball and endured many of the indignities Southern black athletes faced in the 1960s. But in his sophomore year, he faced a decision between academics and athletics, between making history and making grades.

Now, his name is seldom brought up when the ACC's pioneering black athletes are mentioned.

Ken Friedman, a former UNC graduate student who helped Smith identify Cooper as a Tar Heels prospect 45 years ago, thinks the school should do more to honor Cooper.

"What he did," Friedman said, "is not appreciated enough."

Scouting history

In early 1964, Friedman and a UNC law student named Reggie Fountain walked into the gymnasium at Elm City's all-black Frederick Douglass High, dispatched by Smith to scout Cooper.

Smith, whose father insisted on including black players on the Kansas high school teams he coached decades earlier, wanted to add an African-American player to his program. He wasn't only responding to his social conscience. Talented black athletes were already playing at schools elsewhere in the country, and Southern schools were risking being at a competitive disadvantage by not recruiting them.

Smith's chief rivals -- Duke coach Vic Bubas, N.C. State's Everett Case and Wake Forest's Bones McKinney -- were considering recruiting black players, as well.

Friedman remembers he and Fountain were the only white people in the Elm City gym. On later visits, they were made even more conspicuous by the 8-millimeter camera Fountain used to film Cooper, a 6-foot-2 defensive specialist who thrived in the Douglass Braves' fast-breaking style.

The Braves were coached by Harvey Reid, still the winningest coach in N.C. high school basketball history. During Cooper's junior and senior seasons of 1962-63 and 1963-64, Douglass won 72 straight games and two state championships.

One of the school's history teachers, Phil Ford Sr., often drove the team bus. His 8-year-old son, who would become one of North Carolina's greatest players and is now an assistant coach with the Charlotte Bobcats, loved to attend games and was often shooed in the door by Cooper's foster sister Amanda Cameron, a teacher at the school.

"Those teams were always great," Phil Ford Jr. said. "When they lost, it was kind of a tragic accident around the community. And Willie was the star."

Coach Smith set a high standard for finding a player with the academic and athletic prowess to be his program's first black player.

"You can go down and look at him," Friedman, now a coach in Nova Scotia, recalled Smith saying. "If he's as good as Bobby Lewis, we'll give him a scholarship."

Lewis was the high-scoring star of North Carolina's 1963 freshman team and a future All-American.

Friedman knew the game well, having served as a coaching apprentice to Frank McGuire, Smith's predecessor at North Carolina. Although Cooper was fast and strong, Friedman noted he lacked a consistent jump shot and wasn't a great ballhandler.

"I saw lots of potential in him," Friedman said. "But ... he wasn't nearly as good as Bobby Lewis."

Cooper grew out of a troubled childhood in Elm City. His father was deceased and his mother had cerebral palsy and couldn't care for Willie. At age 10, Cooper was taken in as a foster child by Martha and Kester Mitchell, who had already raised 10 children of their own on a farm.

With several of their children already college graduates, the Mitchells stressed academics. Cooper was president of the student council, active in the school's 4-H Club and played trumpet in the band. He also had excellent grades and was offered an academic scholarship at historically black N.C. A&T, where he thought he might try out for the basketball team. He also scored higher than 800 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test, high enough for admittance to an ACC school.

Cooper's high school resume and basketball skills were attractive to Smith, who said Cooper could try out for UNC's freshman team as a walk-on.

Smith also said if Cooper made the freshman team and then the varsity as a sophomore, he might be awarded an athletic scholarship. That was enough for Cooper. He did qualify for a scholarship for in-state students whose parents were deceased U.S. military veterans.

Cooper was aware he faced obstacles as the first black basketball player at North Carolina.

"I knew what it meant," he said.

Show of support

In the fall of 1964, a short story appeared in North Carolina's student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel, on the eve of the freshman team's final day of tryouts.

"It said, 'Willie Cooper, a Negro from Elm City, is still among the candidates,' " Friedman remembers.

There were few black students at UNC 45 years ago. Schools in the South were struggling with the admission of black students and increasing racial tensions.

In Elm City, located about 80 miles east of Chapel Hill, the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan marked Cooper's decision to attend UNC by burning a cross on the family's front yard, Amanda Cameron said.

His foster parents didn't think it was wise for Willie to advertise his intentions.

"I had put a Carolina bumper sticker on our car, like everybody else," Cooper said. "My father told me to take it off."

But on the last day of tryouts, after the newspaper article, students turned out in support of Cooper. Friedman remembers an amazing sight when he walked into UNC's Woollen Gym: The bleachers were nearly packed with white students. They cheered when Cooper walked out of the locker room and as he played one-on-one with prized recruit Larry Miller, who would go on to become an All-American.

Cooper had previously been warmly welcomed by North Carolina's basketball community. When he arrived in Chapel Hill earlier in 1964 for summer school, he worked out in the heat with Friedman at an off-campus outdoor court. Friedman said Billy Cunningham, then the Tar Heels' star, would often join in, as did former players including Donnie Walsh and Doug Moe.

"There appeared to be an undercurrent of people trying to make this happen," Cooper said of his chances of making the Tar Heels' freshman team. "I was within a cocoon in that team structure."

He and other black students often met Friday afternoons at the university's "Tin Can" -- a rickety gym that housed physical education classes and intramurals -- to play pickup basketball games. Cooper shot endless jumpers while his friends stood under the basket, rebounding.

"It was a recreational and social thing for us to do," said Charlotte's Mel Watt, a sophomore in 1964 who now represents North Carolina's 12th district in the U.S. Congress. "All of us knew every black student on campus at that time."

Cooper did make the freshman team. He played sparingly at first, but he was a crowd favorite when he did get in games.

"I don't remember there being any problem for us that he was black," said Frank Aycock, a student at the time who is now a retired attorney in Charlotte. "He was very popular with the student body."

One of Cooper's most joyful memories of his freshman season came from the first game, a victory against Clemson in Woollen Gym. He still has the newspaper report:

"An historic event produced the most noise in the stands ... Willie Cooper, of Elm City, scored on his first shot, a high arching jump shot from the side. He is the first Negro to score two points for the Blue and White."

Turned away

Soon enough, Cooper began enduring indignities that often came with being a black student at a large, predominately white university in the South.

"I was a novelty, sort of, as a basketball player," he said. "But I wasn't always the most popular thing with other folk around there."

As a sophomore, Cooper wanted to live in Ehringhaus Dormitory, which housed many of the school's athletes. He was assigned living quarters with three white football players. They objected to having Cooper as their roommate, he remembers. He moved out.

"The unwelcomness of that was devastating to me," he said.

Cooper also had to deal with unpleasant racial attitudes on the road. On a trip to Virginia, a restaurant refused to serve him. Coach Ken Goodman pulled the entire team out of the restaurant, and the Tar Heels ate elsewhere.

Cooper said he also wasn't allowed to accompany the team on a trip to South Carolina because coaches thought it would be too dangerous.

Despite those distractions, Cooper progressed throughout the season, gradually earning more playing time and becoming one of the team's better players. He finished the season averaging about four points per game.

He felt he had a solid chance at making the varsity the next year.

Facing a decision

Early in his sophomore year, however, Cooper began to hit rough ground academically, a feeling that deeply unsettled him. Courses in his major of business administration, such as economics and statistics, proved difficult and he began the semester by nearly failing a few tests.

Because of the large amount of time he was spending with his books, Cooper had begun to wonder if there was also room for basketball.

"I wasn't somebody who just wanted to get by," Cooper said. "I was used to excelling in whatever I did."

He had also become wary of his chances at making a substantial impact on the varsity, if he made the team at all. Although one of the better defensive players on the freshman team, he knew he would continue to compete against stars like Miller for playing time.

Before varsity tryouts ended, he called Friedman.

"He said, 'I'm concerned I can't do varsity basketball and keep my grades where I want them to be. I really need to stop,' " Friedman recalled. "He also said, 'But you worked so hard with me, if it's not OK with you I'll keep playing.'

"I told him he should do what he thought was right for himself. I wouldn't have any more respect for him than if he made first-team All-American."

Cooper remembers Smith wishing him well. Recalled Smith: "I'm sure Willie did what was best for him. We were happy to have had him with us."

A few weeks later, Maryland's Billy Jones became the ACC's first black varsity player when he entered a game against Penn State on Dec. 1, 1965.

One year later, Charlie Scott enrolled at Chapel Hill. He played his first varsity game in 1967.

A dream realized

Cooper graduated from UNC in the spring of 1968 with a degree in business administration, then served in Vietnam. He worked at IBM for 20 years -- many as an equal-opportunity officer for the company -- before retiring in 1993. He was responsible for making sure the company's Atlanta regional office hired and promoted minorities.

"It was the same stuff, having to deal with people in the deep South," Cooper said. "But now I was managing them."

He now owns a landscape-lawn service in Chattanooga, Tenn. He and his wife Helen raised three children.

Cooper doesn't shrug off what he went through in Chapel Hill. But he says it was no different than what other blacks endured in the South during those days.

"I was used to discrimination; I'd been turned away at lunch counters," he said. "So I don't think I look back on it as a glorious time. I have some emotional scars from it.

"But there is a certain feeling of achievement of making progress against all of that."

Amanda Cameron agrees with Friedman that Cooper deserves some recognition from UNC.

"It seems like it isn't fair," said Cameron, 83, who still lives in Elm City. "He was the first black, regardless of how he got there. It shouldn't matter that he was a walk-on."

Cooper, though, says has already received his rewards.

His son Brent played on North Carolina's 1991-92 junior varsity team.

And in 1994, a sophomore scholarship athlete on North Carolina's women's basketball team named Tonya Cooper helped the Tar Heels win the national championship. She calls her father her hero, respects the choices he made, and says he was instrumental in paving the way for her and others.

"When Tonya stepped into that varsity uniform, that validated some things for me," Willie Cooper said. "I got to live my dream through her."

dscott@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5889

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