In 1966, Chapel Hill was still a town rooted in the Old South, UNC was a rather conservative campus and Dean Smith was no more than the coach who replaced Frank McGuire, whose legendary Tar Heels from New York had beaten Wilt Chamberlain for a national basketball championship.
And Charlie Scott was a young man from a broken home in Harlem, smart and athletic beyond measure but a bit tentative for the work of a trailblazer.
Their tour together through the chaotic late 1960s, widely known in broad terms, becomes a story rich in detail and societal context in Art Chansky’s satisfying “Game Changers.”
Smith, who for years had wanted to break the color line in University of North Carolina athletics, recruited Scott out of Laurinburg Institute, a prep school in the Sandhills that readied young African-Americans from throughout the country for college and also had a pretty fair basketball team.
These two men’s success in integrating UNC athletics was far from inevitable. Smith, not yet the proprietor of Tar Heel hearts, was a man of principle in a precarious position. Scott was wise and proud but shy and leery.
Chansky calls them “careful crusaders.”
And as he tells the tale, neither was perfect for the role. Both had marriages that failed during those years, partly because of their dedication to other priorities. Scott, in addition, was a reluctant pioneer, sometimes slow to bear the standard, never fully joining the UNC experience and making few lifelong friends there.
And Smith, later a legendary adherent to the team concept, still had things to learn.
“It has been said,” Chansky writes, “that Smith treated all of his players the same, but it would be more accurate to say he treated them all fairly, a relative term that allowed for differences in individual circumstances.” In Scott’s case, that approach led Smith to be a tad indulgent – a small mistake he didn’t make again.
Chansky places those years in their rich context – opposition to the Vietnam War, a long battle against the state’s infamous campus “speaker ban” and some surprising episodes of violence as Jim Crow made a final stand in a town later to be known for its enlightenment, and as the nearly all-white university struggled to stay detached until it could no longer.
There are rewarding anecdotes – like the amusing tale of Scott’s first encounter with walk-on Burke Archer’s “not-very-liberal” mom from Pilot Mountain, and the explanation of why the UNC freshman hoops team in 1967 had five Morehead scholars. Yes, five.
And then there’s the basketball. Scott’s hardwood exploits were as thrilling as any performed in Carolina blue until Michael Jordan arrived a decade and a half later. But even the games had a subtext of tension.
For instance, Scott’s winning shot in the 1969 East Regional final against Davidson, probably the most famous shot by a Smith team until Jordan’s winner in the 1982 national final, had enough subplots to fill a “30 for 30” film. Chansky explains how the shot nearly never happened because of an episode of turmoil on the campus and because Scott was chafing at slights in the voting for the All-ACC team. And it sank the national title hopes of Lefty Driesell, who was coaching his final game at Davidson and always resented Smith’s “theft” of Scott, who was nearly the Wildcats’ own pioneer.
Local legends roam the pages of “Game Changers,” including groundbreaking politician Howard Lee, dauntless pastor Robert Seymour, Mildred “Mama Dip” Council, UNC band leader Major John Yesulaitis and William Blake, a rather enlightened police chief who was more Gandhi than Bull Connor.
The stories are satisfying, as Chansky tells more than the tale of a talented student and coach who helped to change a corner of the South. The history of the town in troubled times is vivid. And this is also the story of how Charlie Scott’s four years at UNC helped make Dean Smith the coach he became, and helped forge the bonds of loyalty that became the celebrated Carolina family.
These were also the years when Smith, whose creed was to nurture potential with opportunity and to blend social activism with personal responsibility, became more – a lot more – than just UNC’s basketball coach.
Eric Frederick: 919-829-8956. On Twitter: @Eric_Frederick
“Game Changers: Dean Smith, Charlie Scott, and the Era That Transformed a Southern College Town”
By Art Chansky
The University of North Carolina Press, 224 pages
Art Chansky will be talking about his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, 7 p.m. Wednesday at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and 11 a.m. Saturday at McIntyre’s Books in Fearrington Village near Pittsboro.