Remembering sports figures who have earned monuments in the fight for racial equality

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

Statues, mute but eloquent, have been upsetting people lately. In some respects it’s surprising many of these grand historical markers have escaped widespread challenge for so long. But while debate rages over the appropriateness of honoring military and political figures associated with divisiveness and racial discrimination, relatively little is offered as a positive alternative for our public spaces beyond a series of empty pedestals and enhanced museum displays.

That’s where sports can make a contribution.

Athletic competition is often a great unifier.

“It has had a tremendous impact,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski told me about his sport, and by extension all sports. “When you watch a basketball game, what you’ve seen is African-Americans and whites hugging one another, on a team together, laughing with one another, crying with one another ... It’s like having an infomercial about how people should be.”

So here’s to establishing a series of apolitical statues, starting with examples from North Carolina’s ACC member institutions, that celebrate sports moments and local athletes associated with breakthroughs in acceptance across racial lines. (That women are not part of the mix reflects discrimination against their varsity participation during the era when collegiate racial barriers were first broken.)

Certainly sports heroes, like other public figures, can fall into disrepute – witness coach Joe Paterno and his statue at Penn State, removed in 2012 from outside the school’s football stadium in the wake of a child abuse case in which he was complicit. But the sports symbols suggested here, to be displayed on or off campus, don’t represent individual records so much as connections to something unscripted and beyond games.

Start with the image most appropriate for Wake Forest, where running back Brian Piccolo, just short of his 20th birthday in October 1963, stood conspicuously beside a visiting Maryland player and gestured to members of the home crowd to shut up.

Gale Sayers (left) and former Wake Forest back Brian Piccolo formed a special friendship as Bears running backs in the late 1960s. FILE KRT

The following season, Piccolo led the nation in rushing yardage and points scored, earned All-American recognition and was voted 1964 ACC Player of the Year. Piccolo became best known through the 1971 film “Brian’s Song” that depicted his brotherly relationship with fellow Chicago Bears runner Gayle Sayers, bridging a still-active racial divide, and his untimely death of testicular cancer at age 26.

But in ’63 Piccolo was no more than a standout on a mediocre Wake squad when the Terps came to Winston-Salem with Darryl Hill, the first black football player in ACC history. Hill, an accomplished receiver, was fielding punts prior to the game. When he caught one, Wake fans booed. His rare muffs elicited cheers. Hill recalls the crowd chanting the n-word as part of their taunts.

The hostile reception caused Piccolo, who grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., to pointedly position himself beside Hill. Then he turned to the student section and signaled timeout, forming the familiar T in front of his throat. That’s the pose to capture, two rivals standing together in different uniforms, one African-American and one white, a hand gesture proclaiming their human bond.

Taunting silenced, Piccolo apologized to his opponent for the behavior of Wake’s students and encouraged him to have a good game, the better to quiet detractors. Hill obliged with six catches, two for touchdowns, in a 32-0 win.

“The fact he was willing to take that stand just stuck with me,” says Hill, 73. “Piccolo stood up back then in a way that few people did in the South at that time.”

So had an obscure North Carolina assistant basketball coach. Forget the mythology – Dean Smith didn’t inspire integration in Chapel Hill and lamented failing to reach out sooner to recruit African-American players. Nor, despite numerous tales to the contrary, did Smith accompany his minister, Robert Seymour, and a black theology student to a segregated restaurant when he was head coach.

Even better, it was years earlier that Smith, in his late 20s, unobtrusively joined Seymour and his associate from Olin T. Binkley Memorial Baptist Church in defying racial exclusivity at The Pines, the restaurant favored for team meals by Frank McGuire, then the UNC head coach.

“It took a special person to do that,” an admiring Paul Hewitt told me when he was coaching at Georgia Tech. “Here’s an assistant who I’m sure had some aspirations of being the head coach there one day. It wasn’t the most popular thing to do if you want to be the head coach, you know what I’m saying?”

That, then, is the moment to savor – the middle-aged minister flanked by the two young men of different races, hands reaching to open a door.

38 years isn't that long ago
Kenny Dennard holds photo of his hug with Gene Banks as Duke players Courtesy of Kenny Dennard

Duke’s enduring tableau would be the most intimate. In 1977-78, a season after finishing tied for last in the ACC, holdovers Mike Gminski and Jim Spanarkel and coach Bill Foster led the Blue Devils to an ACC championship and ultimately the NCAA title game. The catalytic agents in that transformation were a pair of precocious freshman forwards, Kenny Dennard and Gene Banks, the 1978 ACC Rookie of the Year.

Banks, a Philadelphia prep legend, was a chiseled 6-7 and the first top-notch black recruit in school history. Dennard, a rugged, 6-8 white kid, hailed from small King, N.C. Their striking partnership came to personify the team during a season of celebration. Come the Final Four, the Blue Devils edged Notre Dame. Afterward the bookend forwards shared a fierce, spontaneous hug on the court, jersey numbers 20 and 33 plastered chest to chest.

“I don’t even remember anybody being in the stadium,” Dennard says of the Final Four embrace. “I just remember it being this incredible feeling. Obviously, when you look at it from the picture, it came through. It was a tearful, joyful release for each other …That hug was probably the cement for our relationship.”

NC State's David Thompson soars to the basket against Virginia in the 1974 ACC tournament. 1974 News & Observer archive pho

Finally, at N.C. State there was a man alone. The school’s ultimate symbol of barriers transcended was David Thompson, national Player of the Year in 1974 and 1975 and still the best in ACC basketball history. Probably no image from Thompson’s playing career could be more appropriately memorialized in bronze or stone than a time when he rose high above the rim and, in an era when dunks were outlawed, gently laid the ball in the basket.

Thompson soared as distinctively in popular regard as on the court. While other players were inextricably tied to their team, Thompson’s appeal was universal. Anyone could identify with him, appreciating artistry unique for its time, and bask in achievements capped by leading N.C. State to a 1974 NCAA title that ended UCLA’s seemingly eternal hegemony. Watching Thompson you didn’t see color, not even Wolfpack red unless you were a proud N.C. State fan. You saw someone familiar and welcome, known simply as “David” to admirers everywhere.

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