Fifty years ago, the ACC tournament came to Charlotte and produced one of the most memorable individual performances in history. It occurred during a Duke-North Carolina final played in a smoky haze on an ice-cold floor at what is now known as Bojangles’ Coliseum.
Charlie Scott, the first African-American scholarship athlete at UNC, scored 40 points in that 1969 game, which is still a record for an ACC tournament final. It was one of the best weeks of his life, he said.
But Scott remains rankled by what happened a few days after the tournament ended, when he lost out on the “ACC Player of the Year” award to South Carolina’s John Roche in a media vote.
“That was a biased vote,” Scott said in our recent phone interview. “Let’s be honest — and I’m not trying to demean John Roche at all — but that was ludicrous.”
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To understand why, it helps to know a little bit about what happened at the 1969 ACC tournament, and a little bit more about Charlie Scott.
Scott was a shooting star for three years with the Tar Heels – the closest thing UNC ever had on a basketball court to Michael Jordan before Jordan himself arrived more than a decade later.
To get Scott, the Tar Heels narrowly won a recruiting battle with charismatic Davidson coach Lefty Driesell. Late in the recruitment, Driesell hid behind a bush in Laurinburg, N.C., where Scott was going to high school, and then suddenly appeared, taking one last shot at trying to talk Scott into changing his mind.
Dean Smith, meanwhile, was the only coach recruiting Scott who took him to church.
Smith once told me in a 2005 interview about that visit to Binkley Baptist in Chapel Hill with Scott: “I wanted him to see Binkley because we were one of the few churches around that was fully integrated at the time. I wanted him to know he could feel comfortable there. I didn’t force him to go – I just asked him ‘Do you want to go to church, Charles?’ He said he did, so we went.”
Scott was a spectacular player, and his behavior on and off the court in the face of racist taunts would inspire current UNC head coach Roy Williams to name his own son “Scott” many years later.
Scott also won a gold medal with the U.S. basketball team in the 1968 Olympics, and his pro career was similarly outstanding.
But for all of that, Scott admits he may have never had a better single game than that ACC final, which Duke led by nine points at halftime. Then Scott scored 28 points in the second half alone on 12-of-13 shooting.
“One of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen,” Smith said after the game.
“There was a lot of pressure in those days,” said Scott, a 6-foot-5 forward for the Tar Heels. “We had only one chance to get to the NCAA tournament, even though we had won the regular season. You had to win the ACC tournament. Those sort of elements really don’t exist in the ACC tournament today.”
‘I think we’ve got a shot’
The 1969 ACC tournament occurred less than two months after Richard Nixon had been sworn in as president. and no one had yet heard of Watergate. Neil Armstrong was four months away from standing on the moon. James Earl Ray would soon be sentenced to a 99-year prison term for killing Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
Charlotte’s schools were still largely segregated, although the landmark court decision that would integrate them was soon to come. The current skyline didn’t exist and the business of banking didn’t yet dominate uptown commerce. The population of the city was roughly a quarter of what it is today. The Observer cost a dime on weekdays and advertised Budget rent-a-cars for $6 a day and a “GE Console Color TV” at Kmart for $498.88.
WBTV Channel 3 broadcast the 1969 ACC final on Saturday night, sandwiching the game in a 90-minute time slot between “The Jackie Gleason Show” and “Mannix.”
The ACC was made up of eight teams in those days, with all seven tournament games played from Thursday-Saturday. Only the tournament winner advanced to the NCAA tournament.
UNC had made two straight Final Fours in 1967 and ’68 and also won the 1969 ACC regular season, but Duke had also upset the Tar Heels, 87-81, five days before the tournament started. The Blue Devils were coached by Vic Bubas, who was only 42 years old but had already announced his intent to retire from coaching and become an athletic administrator following Duke’s season.
“I think we’ve got a shot at it,” Bubas said of the tournament before it began, even though Duke was only 13-12 overall.
South Carolina was seeded second, behind UNC. Wake Forest, Duke and N.C. State were all 8-6 in the conference that season, tying for third (Duke won a three-way drawing and was seeded No. 3). Virginia, Maryland and Clemson brought up the rear.
Scott was not the only black basketball player in the ACC at that point – several schools integrated their basketball teams before UNC did. But he was a target for racial taunting “really every year I was there,” Scott said. He said the worst of the heckling usually came when the Tar Heels played at South Carolina.
In one of the nastier incidents of his recruitment, Scott stopped unannounced at a Davidson-area restaurant to visit Driesell, who was eating inside. Scott was with his high school basketball coach and the coach’s wife, who were also black. As Scott told me in 2004 in an interview for a book I wrote on UNC’s basketball history: “My coach’s wife saw Lefty’s lima beans and she said, ‘Oh, they look good!’ Lefty told her to have some – for us to sit down, join him and eat.”
The group ordered. But Scott recounted that the restaurant’s owner walked up and said he wouldn’t serve “n------” in the main dining area. The entire party left the restaurant angrily, including Driesell. “It embarrassed him (Driesell), and I know it was a circumstance he wished he had never got caught in,” Scott said. “It did have an effect on me.”
Scott remained steadfast, however, in staying in the South to go to school even though he was originally from New York and had scholarship offers all over the country.
“It was the late 1960s , and a lot of blacks, including me, were aware of their responsibilities,” he said. “In those times, if you could do something, you did. I wanted to break the color barrier.”
John Swofford, now the ACC commissioner, was a quarterback at North Carolina at the same time Scott was playing basketball.
“I had a tremendous appreciation for Charlie Scott, then and now, and a lot of admiration for him as a player and as a person,” Swofford said in an interview this week. “But I didn’t know everything that was going on… Unless you have that skin color and walk in those shoes, I don’t think you can ever fully appreciate what he went through.”
‘Five million cigars’
What was then known as Charlotte Coliseum sat a little less than 12,000 for basketball.
“The participating schools used all 11,666 seats in the coliseum and could have sold three, four, five times that many or more,” wrote Ron Green Sr. in The Charlotte News, the city’s then-thriving afternoon newspaper.
The coliseum was also the home to the Charlotte Checkers, and the basketball floor was laid down directly over the ice. While Scott said he liked the coliseum’s spaciousness and considered it one of the premier arenas in the South, not all his teammates shared his enthusiasm.
“I hated to play in the coliseum. The floor was so cold,” said David Chadwick, a reserve on that UNC team who would eventually become one of Charlotte’s best-known pastors. “If you were playing with a brand-new basketball on that cold floor right on top of that ice rink, it was hard to get much of a shooting rhythm in the first half.”
All basketball games at the time shared another problem – smoking was allowed everywhere. The coliseum wasn’t air-conditioned, which meant everyone breathed secondhand smoke for several hours, and a hazy cloud formed at the top of the arena.
Green would write a few days after the 1969 ACC tournament ended that he had watched it all “dimly, through the smoke of five million cigars and cigarettes.” And when you left the games, he wrote: “You come out of the building smelling like a hickory smoked ham.”
A significant injury
The 1969 tournament’s first day went mostly according to plan. Scott had a season-low 11 points in UNC’s 24-point win over Clemson, but post players Rusty Clark and Bill Bunting scored 22 apiece.
The tournament’s first real upset came in the semifinals. Duke outlasted South Carolina, 68-59, shutting down Roche and teammates to earn an unlikely bid in the final.
Duke’s starters got a little tired in that game, as all five played all 40 minutes. South Carolina did the same thing with its five starters. That game remains the only time in ACC tournament history that neither team ever used a substitute.
In the other semifinal, North Carolina edged Wake Forest, 80-72, as both Scott and standout point guard Dick Grubar scored 23 points. That set up the Duke-UNC championship on March 8, 1969. I watched a tape of that game recently – a friend at Raycom Sports found it in the vault and loaned it to me – and it struck me how different basketball was back then.
First of all, it was played mostly below the rim. Scott was the one exception, leaping high above the goal on layups. There were also a lot of “No’s” in college basketball at the time – no dunking, no three-point line and no shot clock. The latter was what made UNC’s time-killing “Four Corners” offense so effective (and so despised outside of Chapel Hill).
In the final, Duke got hot from outside early. The Blue Devils would wind up getting 15 points from guard Dick DeVenzio and 19 points from center Randy Denton.
The Tar Heels suffered a major blow during the first half, losing Grubar to a serious knee injury.
“Grubar was a 6-foot-4 point guard, and that was almost unheard of at the time,” Scott said. “We were basically a very tall lineup with a lot of length. Without him, that affected a lot of things. He was our quarterback.”
Future college basketball coach Eddie Fogler and future Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, then UNC guards, helped take up some of the slack. But Grubar’s absence also meant that Scott would need to shoot and score more often if the Tar Heels were going to make up the halftime deficit.
“It was kind of discouraging at halftime,” Chadwick said. “And they were still beating us pretty good in the second half until Charlie got on a streak. It was unbelievable. He made about six shots in a row, and suddenly we were tied… That 28 points he had in the second half was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen by an individual in college basketball.”
‘Up and up and up’
Scott’s only miss during the second half was from 20 feet. He hit a variety of other mid-range jumpers, often going to his left (always his favorite move). As UNC gradually pulled ahead, Scott took the ball on the left about 30 feet from the basket, slashed past one Duke defender and challenged Duke’s Denton at the basket.
Denton, who would later play six seasons of pro basketball in the ABA and NBA, had a 5-inch height advantage. He rose in the air with Scott.
“Denton came over to try and block it,” Chadwick said. “He went up – but Charlie just kept going up. And up. And up. You couldn’t dunk – it was against the rules – but Charlie must have had his elbow at the rim. Randy fouled him and Charlie laid it in the basket. I’ll never forget it, as long as I live.”
Scott would say later it was one of the greatest individual plays he ever made, one that tied a bow on an otherworldly performance. No other Tar Heel scored even 10 points that night, so Scott’s 40 more than quadrupled any other North Carolina player.
Duke assistant coach Chuck Noe told The Charlotte News that night: “Charlie was like a conductor. He punched our ticket and sent us straight home … We had the rest of North Carolina’s team beaten, everybody except Scott. But he wouldn’t let it end… Everybody in the game was tired except Scott. He looked like Superman out there.”
‘It was a biased vote’
Scott was the ACC tournament’s Most Valuable Player in 1969, as well as the best player on a team that won both the regular-season and tournament championships, and made the Final Four. He also was a second-team All-American – the only ACC player that year to win significant All-American recognition of any type.
Roche was none of those things – although he did average 24 points per game for the Gamecocks. But when the media voting results came out for “ACC Player of the Year” three days after the tournament, Scott received 39 first-place votes.
Roche got 56.
“That hurt me, to be honest with you,” Scott said. “It was a biased vote.”
In fact, Scott briefly thought about sitting out the NCAA tournament in protest. Instead, he played – and eventually hit the game-winning shot in an 87-85 victory over Davidson a week later, sending the Tar Heels to the Final Four for the third straight season.
Now 70, Scott lives in the Atlanta area. In 2018, in what he would call “an honor I’ve always dreamed of,” he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
For his induction speech, Scott wore a button on his lapel with the letters “DES” in honor of his old coach, Dean E. Smith, who died in 2015.
And Scott closed his speech with this line: “I’m very proud to be standing up here as a black man who took a path that wasn’t easy – but was the right path to take.”