ACC basketball color line was not easily crossed, pioneers recall

North Carolina’s Charlie Scott was the MVP of the 1969 ACC tournament. Duke’s C.B. Claiborne was one of several players tasked with stopping him in the championship game.
North Carolina’s Charlie Scott was the MVP of the 1969 ACC tournament. Duke’s C.B. Claiborne was one of several players tasked with stopping him in the championship game.

Leonard Hamilton closely followed ACC basketball as a youngster in Gastonia. He enthusiastically recalls the rivalries, the excitement the games generated. He relishes with a booster’s pride having this year’s ACC tournament in Charlotte.

But Hamilton, 70, didn’t play in the league during the pivotal period in integrating Southern sports. Instead he walked on at Tennessee-Martin, where he won team MVP and defensive player awards in 1971, his senior season.

“Growing up as a kid, I never thought about playing in the ACC because the opportunity wasn’t available,” said Hamilton, one of four black coaches currently in the league. “I was just a fan.”

C.B. Claiborne, a less reticent explorer of fraught social territory, did compete in the ACC, making his last college appearance in the 1969 ACC tournament at the Charlotte Coliseum. The first player to break the color line at Duke was among several Blue Devils tasked with trying to derail a transcendent scoring performance by North Carolina’s Charlie Scott in the second half of the final.

“Every time he makes a shot I say to myself I’m picking him up a step closer,” Claiborne, a career reserve, said of Scott’s long-range marksmanship in a Tar Heel triumph. The go-ahead jumper by Scott, who made 12 of 13 shots in a second-half rally, comes readily to mind. “I remember that shot because I actually tipped the ball when he shot it, and it still went in.”

That was the only time Claiborne, a strong defender, played in an ACC tournament game during three years on the varsity.

Claiborne wasn’t a devoted ACC fan growing up in Danville, Va. On-court fights drew his attention more than the games themselves. He paid closer heed to teams and players in the CIAA during its pre-integration heyday, visiting the league tournament in Winston-Salem several times on field trips with teachers and coaches.

The quick, slender guard thought he’d attend North Carolina A&T and play for the late Cal Irvin, but ultimately chose a pioneering role at Duke under head coach Vic Bubas, if only on an academic scholarship.

When Claiborne matriculated, opportunities at Duke and around the ACC for players then referred to as Afro-Americans were slim. Racial consciousness was slimmer. In 1966, Claiborne’s freshman season, Duke held the team banquet at a segregated Durham country club.

What little playing time Claiborne got – more, he insists, when the Blue Devils visited venues up north – was curtailed when he refused his coach’s order to cut his Afro hairdo, then common among young black men and women. (Coby White, take note.) He lost even more ground with Bubas when he skipped a practice to participate in a black-student takeover of Duke’s administration building in February 1969.

Claiborne returned to Durham last month from his home in Houston, where he’s a professor at Texas Southern University, to take part in a Duke-sponsored 50th anniversary commemoration of the takeover. The event’s promotional material celebrated black undergrads “who challenged the university’s discriminatory policies,” and hailed the peaceful occupation as a seminal event in transforming Duke into a more inclusive institution.

Like Claiborne, Craig Mobley, another barrier-breaker, was raised on the ACC’s doorstep in Chester, S.C. Later in 1969 he also took part in a protest by black students at Clemson.

Anticipating sore points that linger today, the school’s small group of African-American undergrads raised concerns about blackface student performances, display of the Confederate flag and playing “Dixie”. When cars subsequently were driven close behind them as they walked, and university officials were seemingly unresponsive to their concerns, black students, Mobley among them, left campus en masse for a day.

Mobley was a factor on the Tigers’ freshman squad, but slid to permanent benchwarmer status when genial Bobby Roberts, the man who recruited him, was replaced by confessed cheater Tates Locke.

To this day the California resident wonders if his activism or his basketball ability determined his athletic fate.

“You had some legends there that didn’t want blacks in athletics at all,” Mobley said, most notably legendary football coach and athletic director Frank Howard.

He quit the bottom-dwelling Clemson program in 1971, his sophomore year. Mobley’s career ended with four missed shots over four minutes in a 35-point loss to North Carolina in the ACC tournament quarterfinals at Greensboro.

Billy Jones has more pleasant recollections of the ACC’s showcase event.

Jones, raised in Towson, Md., is retired from a position as a human resources executive at Disney World in Orlando. When he chose to attend the University of Maryland he didn’t realize he would be the ACC’s first black varsity player. (Julius “Pete” Johnson arrived with him, but red-shirted their sophomore season.)

“I was naïve about the whole thing,” Jones said of his 1965-66 debut. “When coach (Bud) Millikan talked about integrating the conference, I thought everybody was doing it.”

Hardly. The strong-rebounding guard preceded Duke’s Claiborne by a season, Scott and Wake Forest’s Norwood Todmann, both native New Yorkers, by two.

Jones was treated as an unwelcome intruder at many ACC arenas.

“The environment was tough, really tough,” he said. “You could cut the animosity with a knife.”

But bitter experience was offset by a pleasant surprise when he reported to the scorer’s table to enter a 1966 ACC tournament quarterfinal against North Carolina at Raleigh’s Reynolds Coliseum.

“I got an ovation,” Jones recalled. “I look around, and there’s nothing going on. There’s nothing else going on. I’m the only change here, unless they were cheering my teammate coming out…So I do think there were some people in there that understood.”

And hopefully still do.

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Sports columnist Luke DeCock has covered the Summer Olympics, the Final Four, the Super Bowl and the Carolina Hurricanes’ Stanley Cup. He joined The News & Observer in 2000 to cover the Hurricanes and the NHL before becoming a columnist in 2008. A native of Evanston, Ill., he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania and has won multiple national and state awards for his columns and feature writing while twice being named North Carolina Sportswriter of the Year.