Barry Saunders

Saunders: A major ingredient left out of Chapel Hill’s Charles Scott Day – Charles Scott himself

Dean Smith with Charlie Scott in the 1969 ACC Tournament. Smith signed Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC in 1966.
Dean Smith with Charlie Scott in the 1969 ACC Tournament. Smith signed Scott as the first black scholarship athlete at UNC in 1966. News & Observer file photo

For Tar Heel basketball fans, there is nobody alive more deserving of a day in his honor than Charlie Scott – so who could be surprised to hear about the “Charles Scott Day” planned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his signing with UNC-Chapel Hill as its first black basketball player?

Charles Scott, that’s who.

You see, nobody bothered to tell Scott that a day of events and fund-raising is scheduled, using his name and ostensibly in his honor.

“I found out from my daughter last Tuesday, when she came into the room and said she’d read on a UNC website that they were proclaiming April 9 ‘Charles Scott Day,’” Scott told me from his home in Atlanta last week.

The Town of Chapel Hill issued a proclamation to coincide with the events, so Scott called Chapel Hill Mayor Pam Hemminger to find out about this honor. “She said she was under the impression that the person she’d been dealing with had been in constant contact with me all along,” he said. “I told her, ‘I’m very appreciative of what you’re doing, but I have no knowledge of this.’”

The person with whom the mayor had been in contact, the one she assumed had Scott’s blessings for the festivities, was William Thorpe Jr., an events planner whose father was a longtime town council member.

While talking with Hemminger, Scott said, he was all set to accept the proclamation as just a well-intended, innocuous civic gesture, “but then she said, ‘and the events that he’s having ...’”

“Events?” Scott said he asked. “What events? I asked her for the guy’s number and called him. ... He said he’d been trying to get in touch with me since January, which I find not credible. If you tell somebody you’re going to do a story, that the town is declaring ‘Charles Scott Day,’ I’m pretty sure UNC would have called me and asked if I wanted to be in touch with him.

“I asked Thorpe, ‘If somebody was going to do something like this in your name, don’t you think they should give you the courtesy of talking to you?’ He said, ‘Yeah, that makes good sense.’

“No kidding,” Scott said.

Still, no harm, no foul, just an overzealous fan who’d cut a corner or two, right?

“And then,” Scott said, incredulity rising in his voice, “he said he was trying to have a basketball game at Chapel Hill High to raise money for this foundation he has. I said, ‘Wait a minute. You’re having an event to raise money using my name and nobody’s even talked to me about it?’ I told my daughter, ‘This is like having raisin bran without the raisins.’ How are you going to have ‘Charlie Scott Day’ and not tell Charlie Scott?”

Turns out the Charlie Scott Day was also going to honor, simultaneously, Bob Gersten, the oldest living Tar Heel basketball player with that most tenuous connection to Scott. Gersten played for the Heels from 1938 to 1942. Scott arrived in Chapel Hill in 1966.

Scott said, “I told the mayor, ‘I know Bobby Gersten. He’s a real nice guy. I know his son, his family. They’re all good people. But if I had shown up on that campus to play basketball in 1938, somebody would’ve hung me.”

Of Thorpe, Scott said, “I don’t know anything about his organization or what the money will be used for, but now I’m perceived to be involved in this. And I’m not. This event might be great, and I told the mayor I’m very appreciative of the proclamation and the honor, but these events that he’s involved in – I don’t have any idea about.”

The indefatigable Thorpe admitted as much when I spoke with him the day after I spoke with Scott, although he insists he made a good-faith effort to connect with Scott.

“I reached out to everyone,” Thorpe said, “but I couldn’t get his number, but I felt that the event itself – because it wasn’t so much about Charles the person but about the historic enrollment of the first black athlete – we still have to do this event. I was so passionate about it.”

So passionate, indeed, that he is undeterred, despite conceding “the event doesn’t have the so-called blessing of Charlie, because he knew nothing of it, and from what he was telling me, he was rather upset that he wasn’t notified. ... I told him that if anyone asked me about it, I would just express that sentiment, that this is an event that was done – unintentionally, of course – without Charlie’s knowledge.”

He said the festivities – featuring the “50th Anniversary Historic Enrollment Prep High School Basketball Game” – will begin at 5:30 p.m. April 9 at Chapel Hill High School. High school players from the Laurinburg area are scheduled to compete against some players from the Chapel Hill area, and the event is to include health screenings and entertainment.

I asked Jeanne Brown, Mayor Hemminger’s assistant, how the town got involved in a Charlie Scott-less “Charles Scott Day.”

“We received a request (from Thorpe) and we made the assumption that everything was in line,” Brown said. “This organization appears to do a lot of great things for our youth and is involved in encouraging healthy living. We felt (Scott) was a wonderful person to honor, and so that proclamation was awarded last Monday at the council meeting. ... We were more than happy to honor such a great person.

“Then we received a call that Mr. Scott had not been notified about the event,” she said. The town has disassociated itself from the events planned for April 9, she said, “but we have asked Mr. Scott and his family to come to a subsequent meeting so we can honor him then. ... We were surprised that he didn’t know about it.”

After a pause, she said, “Next time, we will have to be sure that the person being honored is aware of what’s going on.”

Thorpe insisted that his failure to inform Scott of his planned festivities “was just a major oversight on my part.”

While talking with Scott last week, I confessed to a major oversight on my part, too. I reminded him that I’d interviewed him for a story several years ago at Mama Dip’s restaurant in Chapel Hill, but that interview never appeared in the newspaper.

Why? I was so excited to be talking to my childhood idol that I forgot to turn on my tape recorder.


Bad, I know, but not as bad as forgetting to tell Charles Scott about Charles Scott Day.