Jackie Robinson's often-bitter experiences as a racial pioneer in Major League Baseball are well chronicled. Yet, tough as his ordeal was, Robinson knew how to cope when he broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. He was a 26-year-old adult, a college graduate who had played pro ball, served as an Army office, and lived in integrated settings. He rarely ventured below the Mason-Dixon line except during spring training in Florida.
Contrast that with the lot of pioneering African-American basketball players who crossed the color line and, soon enough, changed the game in the Atlantic Coast Conference and throughout the South.
They were invariably teenagers. Frequently they were away from home for the first time. All had lived for a time at a mandated remove from mainstream, white society. Some, like Duke's Claudius (C.B.) Claiborne and N.C. State's Al Heartley, stepped directly out of segregated schools. The media did not closely follow their travails, and not every athletic department was as conscious of their situation as were Robinson"s Dodgers.
This week, as we savor the prospect of another ACC men's tournament, there's talk of change in the air. The conference will expand next year, and the year after. The event will become a regional road show, moving next season to Washington, D.C., then back to Greensboro, to Tampa, to Charlotte, to Atlanta, and back to Greensboro in 2010. After that it's anybody's guess.
Demand for tickets will intensify as each school gets a smaller allotment. That could result in increased pressure to move the tournament permanently to a prodigious arena like Atlanta's Georgia Dome, where the ACC accommodated an average of 36,505 fans per game in 2001. No such facility presently exists in North Carolina.
Once, the tournament resided permanently in Raleigh, when the host venue was N.C. State's Reynolds Coliseum, the largest building of its kind in the region with 12,400 seats. There, in 1966, the tournament's final year at the on-campus site, the entire ACC community confronted profound change when Billy Jones stepped onto the court. With little fanfare or conflict, he "made history by being the first Negro ever to play in an ACC tournament," according to Jack Horner of the Durham Morning Herald.
The moment, and even the name of the ACC's pioneering black player, were soon lost to common memory. Charles Scott, the North Carolina All-American who played in the Olympics and in the National Basketball Association, is popularly believed to be the man who broke the color barrier in ACC basketball. But he was not the first African-American to play in the league. Nor was he the second, or even the third. Maryland's Julius (Pete) Johnson and Duke's Claiborne both played varsity basketball in 1966-67, a year ahead of Scott.
Jones, a Maryland native, broke the color barrier among major, historically white schools in the South when he played for the Maryland Terrapins during the 1965-66 season. He was soon eclipsed by the player known as "The Great Scott," just as N.C. State's new RBC Center has overshadowed smaller, older Reynolds Coliseum.
Few of today's players and fans can imagine a lily-white ACC. Even fewer realize how slowly the conference came to grips with a changing racial landscape. The more conservative Southeastern Conference accepted African-American players later than the ACC, with Perry Wallace breaking the ice at Vanderbilt in 1967-68. Yet the SEC sought black recruits quickly--seven years after Wallace's graduation, Alabama won a league title with an all-black starting five.
Jones thought his signing with Maryland would similarly open the ACC floodgates for other African-Americans. "I was really naive," Jones said. "I honestly thought that other schools were going to do the same thing. To me it was like the ACC had this agreement that we could do this now so everybody can start doing it."
The majority of ACC squads still had no black players when Jones graduated in 1968. Six years after Jones' debut, the University of Virginia became the final ACC basketball program to include an African American as Al Drummond joined the varsity. A majority of ACC recruits were African-American by 1975, yet it took until N.C. State in 1983 for an all-black starting five to win an ACC title.
Jones' journey through college was less smooth than he acknowledged at the time. He had his share of racially tinged difficulties on the road, on the College Park campus, and once within his own team. Fraternities ignored Jones and Johnson. There were stares and taunts. The all-white snack bar at Durham's downtown train depot refused to serve the Terrapins' black players following a game at Duke, and the entire squad went hungry.
"You just learn to deal with that stuff," said Jones, who lives in Florida. "It's something you grew up on, and to be honest with you it's no big deal anymore. This is everyday life. I've always dealt with this stuff. That's why my amazement that people are so interested in this. It's everyday life. Go to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, and ask the guy on the corner what's it like. His story could be my story. Except that I could shoot a basketball and he didn't, it's the same story.
"It taught me an awful lot in terms of just plain perseverance, just hang tough, do what you have to do to stay focused. If I had fought every time I was called nigger, every time I had been followed around the store, every time a policeman called me, "Hey, where are you bunch of monkeys going?"...If I had responded to that stuff, I'd still be fighting. I wouldn't have had time to do anything else."
Jones also endured physical misfortune his sophomore year, his first on the varsity, missing nine games in December and January with an undiagnosed foot fracture. He played the remainder of the season in pain, and was in uniform for the Triangle's final ACC tournament, which began on March 3, 1966.
The leading figures on the sports pages that day were African-Americans, boxer Cassius Clay and pro basketball star Wilt Chamberlain. The front page of the Washington Post headlined: "20,000 More Men Set for Viet Duty," bringing total U.S. troops in Vietnam to 235,000. President Johnson was about to unveil plans for a federal Department of Transportation, and a ban on arms sales to India and Pakistan was eased.
Closer to home, acting UNC chancellor J. Carlyle Sitterson caused a stir by invoking the Speaker Ban for the first time. System president William Friday concurred in the decision. The statute, later declared unconstitutional, allowed Sitterson to block a speech at Carroll Hall on the Chapel Hill campus by Frank Wilkinson, head of a committee advocating the abolition of the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Meanwhile, Raleigh's News and Observer reported that North Carolina's systematic subjugation of African Americans was being slowly dismantled. Camden and Perquimans joined 26 other North Carolina counties in being forced to drop literacy tests under the strictures of the federal Voting Rights Act.
All eight ACC teams were in action that first day in 1966. (The tournament in the current, nine-member conference opens with a Thursday play-in game, followed by four contests on Friday. That, too, will change next season.) Maryland and North Carolina met in the '66 nightcap, by which time a day's worth of cigarette smoke and steamy humidity clogged Reynolds Coliseum. "This is the hottest I've ever been in my life," said Virginia coach Bill Gibson.
Black players had appeared periodically in Reynolds, both in NCAA games and in the Christmas-time Dixie Classic, and were not always kindly treated by fans in the segregated capital city. Then came Maryland's Jones, a tough-minded, physical, 6-1 guard/forward of middling ability. The light ovation he was accorded when he first stepped onto the Reynolds court escaped the notice of the 98 assembled reporters. Back then, there was little media sensitivity to racial issues or breakthroughs in athletics.
Jones was a substitute, as was guard Gary Williams, the Terrapins' present head coach, as they were defeated by UNC, 77-70. The next day the Tar Heels, directed by young coach Dean Smith, lost 21-20 to Duke, the reigning colossus, in one of the most infamous slowdown games in ACC history. Then Vic Bubas' Blue Devils eliminated N.C. State, won the league's NCAA bid, and advanced to the Final Four for the third time in four years.
Jones, now manager of cast services at Walt Disney World, cherished his moment of recognition at the ACC tournament as validation from a corps of knowledgeable and ultimately accepting fans. "They were basketball freaks, and I mean that in a very positive way. They loved basketball," Jones said recently. "When I went on the floor I got an ovation. I think it was acknowledging the fact that this young black kid had survived the season."
These days, the vast majority of men and women donning ACC basketball uniforms are African-American. When the league goes to 12 teams, nearly half of the head coaches will be black (assuming there are no firings, a tenuous assumption). The ACC's next major challenge, according to Jones, is at the decision-making level, where African-Americans remain virtually excluded.
"Only then, when you get people involved in the process, will you have true progress," said Jones, who advocates that schools cultivate their most promising grads for internal executive positions. "The playing field is easy. You need those folks, they produce dollars. They produce so many dollars. College Park will reap tremendous benefit from what their football and basketball programs have done. If you're smart, if you're smart, you leverage every talent that comes along."
Jones knows well who occupies the suites of ACC power. Faces, even schools have changed over the course of 51 years. But, compared to many institutions, the ACC's racial landscape hasn't changed much, after all.
Barry Jacobs has covered ACC basketball since 1976. He is author of the forthcoming book, Across The Line, stories of the first African-American basketball players in the ACC and SEC.