Charlie Scott: Paving the Way for Future Generations

Charlie Scott
by Cody Cunningham

He scored 40 points to lead the North Carolina Tar Heels to an ACC Championship in 1969, but as the rest of his teammates went out to celebrate, Charlie Scott returned to his hotel room. Instead of feeling the joy and thrill that a championship brings, Scott just felt relief that he didn’t mess up. 

“The hardest thing was being alone.” 

By the age of 14, Scott was already by himself. Following the death of his father and the separation of his mother, Scott had no immediate family and learned quickly that life wasn’t going to come easy for him. 

“I went to a school called Stuyvesant in New York City,” Scott said. “I was one of the top AAU players in New York City and I went to try out for the basketball team and the coach would not let me try out because I was black. Their team was 1 and 27. I made up my mind then that I was not going to let people hold me back anymore.”

In 1966, Scott had plenty of offers on the table to attend colleges such as UCLA, Davidson and Michigan. But instead of taking the simpler path, Scott chose a much more challenging route towards something greater than he could ever imagine.

The valedictorian of his high school, Scott’s academics along with his elite talent on the hardwood made him the ideal recruit for any school. The only thing holding him back at the time was the color of his skin.

The University of North Carolina is now one of the most prestigious programs in all of college basketball, producing some of the greatest players the sport has ever seen. However, up until 1967, no African-American had ever been offered a scholarship to play ball.

That was until a young Scott rolled into town for a visit. The timing couldn’t have been better.

“They used to have a weekend at a Carolina called Jubilee Weekend,” Scott said. “The weekend that they had me visit there, they had The Temptations and Smokey Robinson and the Miracles. Any school that has Smokey Robinson and the Miracles for a fun weekend at school, I wanted to be at.” 

While the music caught his attention, Scott entered a bit of a crossroad. Scott was originally planning on signing an early letter of intent to attend Davidson in December, however, his high school Head Coach Frank McDuffie told him he had to wait until the season was over in April to make his final decision.

“My thing was every time I visited another school, I could tell them, 'I really want to go here, but my coach said I can't sign until it's over with’,” Scott said. “So, I went to Carolina for Jubilee Weekend and then they drove me back to school. [UNC Assistant Coach] Larry Brown said, 'Charlie, what do you think about it?' I said, 'Well you know what, I really like it here, but my coach said I can't sign to go anyplace.’ So, they got back to campus and they went to Mr. McDuffie and said, 'Well, Mr. McDuffie, Charles said he really likes it, but he said he can't sign any place until the whole season is over.” 

McDuffie’s response: “No, he can sign to go to Carolina.”

McDuffie saw the social impact that Scott could make becoming the first African American to receive a basketball scholarship at North Carolina as he had the character, skill and intelligence to stand strong and break the barriers for future generations.

“To be honest with you, I didn’t have the vision I should have had,” Scott told “Mr. McDuffie was the visionary and really understood the importance of choosing North Carolina over Davidson with the integration of the schools. As I kept going, I became more and more enthralled with it.”

Scott made a promise to himself when he was first denied a try-out at a young age and looked to carry out that mission as he officially signed on to become a Tar Heel.

“When I had a chance to go to Carolina, I had the opportunity to prove people were wrong,” Scott said.

And that was exactly what he did. The smooth guard turned into an automatic bucket for the Tar Heels as he quickly emerged as one of the top players in the nation. 

While life was going well for Scott on the court, off it, he was alone. 

“The most difficult circumstance was being by myself,” Scott said. “I’m in a school that is predominantly white and never had a black basketball player. So, I can't expect the other players on the team to change their social goings to be with me. Especially in the South, it wouldn't even work anyways.”

In 1969, arguably the fiercest college rivalry between North Carolina and Duke went head-to-head in the ACC Championship with Scott leading the charge for the Tar Heels. Not only did Scott perform well under the bright lights, but he notched one of the single greatest performances in ACC history.

After trailing in the first half, Scott erupted for an ACC-Championship record 40 points on 17-of-23 shooting as North Carolina defeated Duke 85-74. And while the Tar Heels took home the title, Scott simply returned to his hotel room.

“The hardest thing was being alone,” Scott said. “I can remember after winning the ACC Championship and scoring 40 points, at the end of the game I went back to the hotel room by myself. The rest of the team went to a party. So, those types of things are difficult because they take the joy out of what should be some of the most pleasant times of your life.”

While most players would scream in celebration, Scott exhaled with relief.

“I was scared as hell of failing, to be honest with you,” Scott said. “I went through four years of school. I never enjoyed any year because anything I did was always satisfaction. It was a relief… The times we won, I never was overjoyed about it. I just felt relieved to know that I did not let down a circumstance that would affect more people of my color.”

Scott’s goal was to break barriers while his biggest fear was making those barriers grow stronger. He felt if he performed well, others would get the opportunity he did, but if he didn’t, those opportunities could end with him.

“When you take on those responsibilities, you understood what you accepted,” Scott said. “I knew what I was getting myself into. It was a time where I was given the opportunity to make a difference.”

Scott kept his focus, kept his hustle and more importantly kept the promise to himself to prove others wrong. He went on to average 27.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.1 assists in his final year at North Carolina.

In his four years, he earned 1970 ACC Athlete of the Year and was named two-time consensus All-American along with three-time All-ACC. He helped lead UNC to back-to-back ACC tournament titles in both 1968 and 1969 while also advancing to the Final Four in both of those years. 

Michael Jordan. James Worthy. Walter Davis. Rasheed Wallace. Vince Carter.

These were just a few of the iconic basketball players that Scott was able to open the door for at UNC, not even accounting for the impact he made nationally.

“He took really all the heat off of me,” Walter Davis said. “I never had to go through what he had to go through. You admire people on how they handle bad things in their life. And he played great. He was All-American and played pro. When I got to Carolina, I just had to play ball, listen to Coach and go to class. That was it. He took all the heat. He made that possible for all of us to do that at Carolina."

Despite being 48 years apart, Suns rookie Cam Johnson understands the sacrifice that Scott went through in order to create a path for players such as himself.

“It means a lot,” Johnson said. “That's why I was really interested to hear his story and what his thought process was. He's a good guy and you can see his journey and how he got to where he got to. It took a lot for him to do that. I'm sure at times it was not easy at all and was trying, but he paved the way for a lot of us.”

In 2018, Scott was recognized for his accomplishments at UNC, the challenges he overcame and the barriers broke as he was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

“I feel fortunate more than anything,” Scott said. “I'm honored to be that person. I feel relieved that I set a good enough example that those people did come after me. They became bigger stars than I could have been. I feel fortunate to be the individual that was given that opportunity, but there came a lot of help from a lot of other people. I appreciate all of those. I had great teammates. All those guys, they were part of it. I had great coaching and a great privilege, and all of those things helped me get through the circumstances that I was going through at that time.”

Fifty years have passed since Scott chose UNC, but the impact he made will forever be felt throughout the basketball community.

“Now, I can look back and I can enjoy it and feel like I did something that was appreciated and was rewarding,” Scott said.


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