by Eric Tullis
In 1963, Duke completed one of its last stages of desegregation when five African-American enrolled as undergraduates. Two years later, in 1965, Claudius B. Claiborne made the hour-and-a-half drive down from his Danville, Va. hometown to Durham and became the first African-American to play for the Duke University men’s basketball team.
Today, he works as a professor at Texas Southern University’s Jesse H. Jones School of Business. On the eve of this year’s first match-up between Duke and UNC, in the on-going, storied “Battle for Tobacco Road” rivalry, I talked to Clairborne over the phone about his career as a black student-athlete at Duke during the civil rights Era, the “mongoose” offense, Coach K and Chapel Hill girls.
Why didn’t you have any contact with the graduate student? Did she just keep to herself?
There was no reason for our paths to cross. She was in the lab and that was at the other end of campus. I was an engineering student and I had no reason to go over to the chemistry department. So, yeah, I could understand. I didn’t find out until later that there were other [black] students there other than the ones we knew.
So, while you were in high school, were you aware that Duke had admitted its first black undergraduate students?
When I was in high school I was aware of Duke basketball. The reason I went there is because we used to watch the ACC on TV.
And you chose to come to Duke instead of N.C. A&T. What informed that decision?
I grew up in a basketball culture. I played for a guy named Hank Allen, who is a legendary coach in Virginia. In fact, we just made a documentary film about him. He just passed away at the age of 92. A lot of his players were very close. Fifty of us went back for the documentary, to appear in it and talk about our experiences with Coach Allen. In my senior and junior year, I think we only lost one or two games both seasons. We won three state championships in baseball. He was just an unbelievable coach. In another era, he would have been John Wooden, but because he grew up in the 1930s—he went to Hampton Institute—there just weren’t any opportunities for black coaches back then. So, I was playing for Hank Allen and because we were having this winning season—even the though the schools were segregated back then—the larger white community in Danville, Va., became aware of us and then a number of white people started to come to our games. The gym was always packed. It was always sold out. It was as hard to get into our high school gym as it is to get into Cameron now. Sometimes, I would go over there at halftime of the junior varsity games and even I would have a hard time getting in. There were so many people packed around the gym, trying to get in. They didn’t camp out overnight, but they were there starting in the early afternoon.
As it got toward the end of the season, we started to see more and more white people coming to the games and one of them was Al Newman—a Duke alumnus, who was the No. 1 booster of Duke basketball. He had the ability to call the basketball office and say “there’s a guy up here you ought to look at.” Based on Al Newman’s recommendation, first [Duke assistant coaches] Chuck Daly came, and, later, Bucky Waters came up to Danville to see me. Because of that, I went down to Duke.
When I first went to Duke, there were no athletic scholarships for African-Americans. No one had broken the lines, but Wake Forest was discussing it. So, 1965 was the first year of black players in the ACC. I went to Duke as a freshman, one other guy went to Maryland as a freshman, and one went to Maryland as a sophomore; and they both transferred to the University of Maryland out of junior college.
Before this, the captain on the team a year before me had gone to N.C. A&T. Coach Allen had established a feeder system going back as far as junior high school, so there was this steady progression of players like Earl Monroe who went to Winston-Salem State and other players that went to N.C. A&T. The CIAA [Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association] was very strong then. So, even in when I was in junior high school, on what was called High School Day, they would get buses and take us to the tournament in Greensboro and we’d spend all day watching these college guys play.
I had been introduced to N.C. A&T’s head coach, Cal Irvin, in, probably, my eighth grade year. I knew Cal and during my whole career in high school I wanted to go to N.C. A&T. There was a guy named Maurice McHartley who was a lot like Sam Jones, and Sam Jones was my big hero when I was in high school. So, I wanted to go to A&T and wear number 24 just like McHartley did at A&T and Sam Jones did, earlier at N.C. Central University. So my basketball career was kind of fixed. It was set.
During my junior year, I took one of these standardized tests and I scored very well. In fact, I scored well enough that year to get a scholarship to college. I turned it down, because I wanted to complete my senior year in high school just to play ball. But I knew I was going to go to school. I grew up very poor, my mother lived in the projects, and we struggled to make ends meet very often. But because I had done well on this academic test and because I played ball I knew I was going to college somewhere—it was just a matter of where. As of the spring of my senior year, I don’t think I had even applied to any schools. But, when I did well on this test, I started getting all this literature. I was getting literature from Bowdoin University and Ivy League schools. My guidance counselor had gone to Purdue University. At that time Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Rick Mount were the number one and two guys in Sports Illustrated as far as high school basketball players were concerned. I knew Rick Mount was going to Purdue, so Purdue was on the short list of schools that I wanted to go to. But that’s all I had considered.
Then this thing comes up with Duke and, very quickly, Coach Allen drives me down to meet some people at Duke for an interview, and things start to fall in place. They created a special scholarship for me. It was not an athletic scholarship and it was not an academic scholarship. It was something called a “grant-in-aid.” At first, I was a little insulted when I heard it, but later I said, “Well, this is a good deal. I don’t have to play ball and I don’t lose my scholarship, and I don’t have to maintain a B-average and I don’t lose my scholarship.” But most importantly, I talked to my coach a lot and coach said, “Look, this is a rare opportunity. The thing you have to decide is if you want to be the one to take advantage of this opportunity that will open a lot of doors later.”
So, when you hear those discussions about me thinking about going to A&T, it was because of the basketball legacy and the history that I had come out of. On the academic side, this all started when I took the academic test. They said, “You will be good in architecture and engineering.” A&T had both and Duke only had engineering. So, my first thought was architecture. Also, Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, had gone to A&T for architecture as well. Back in those days, the CIAA and the black schools were very renowned. There was a rich history and tradition there, and so, to be honest, none of us ever thought about going to a white school, but I was the first one in my community to go.
That’s a lot different from today’s culture, where it’s getting harder and harder to get top black high school athletes to attend elite, historically black colleges. Why do you think that this is the case?
Because of resources and opportunities. My kids all went to ACC schools or other schools. They grew up around Duke. Brenda Armstrong, who is still there on the faculty at Duke Medical School is my daughter’s godmother. She was my ex-wife’s best friend, who I met at Duke. So, my daughter was very aware of Duke. She didn’t go there, but she chose a school just like it. So, there is not only an athletic drain of black talent going to white schools, but a mental drain as well.
You spent a lot of time at NCCU and in Durham’s black communities while you attended Duke. What were people’s attitudes like toward you when they found out that you were a Duke student-athlete?
We had an exceptional high school—not just in athletics. Over 50 percent of my graduating class went to college. This is at a small black school in a Southern town. This was exceptional. I had eleven people from my high school graduating class—of about 100—at N.C. Central. So, when I say that I used to go over there everyday—it was like going back home for me. I had a card in the cafeteria and I could eat in the cafeteria. But a number of the black students at Duke also went over there because they felt more at home.
So, it wasn’t one of those situations where N.C. Central students looked at you as the token black dude from Duke.
No, not at all. Some of that might happen now, and it may have happened then. But, you know, it was very personal. It’s not like I was an interloper at Central. I knew lots of people. I knew the guys on the basketball team. In the off-season we hung out together, we played together. The world was still segregated. There were two Durhams. Once you caught that bus and headed out toward Duke, you were entering a different world. On the weekends we would go to functions and parties at Duke, but by-and-large, we hung out near N.C. Central. Once we got cars, even if we had a big party at Duke, after the party, we would go over near N.C. Central to a place that we called “The Hill,” and get some pig feet or something. That was just normal stuff.
Let’s go back to basketball for a second, United Press International once referred to you as a “Negro cage ace.” What exactly does that mean?
(Laughs) That would have been common language back then—we were referred to as Negroes, and somebody that plays basketball was a “cage ace.” This was a time when a lot of barriers were being broken and JET Magazine even did a story about me. In Barry Jacobs’ book, “Across The Lines, Profiles in Basketball Courage: Tales of the First Black players in the ACC and SEC,” he documents how in every single conference in the south there were these kind of barriers being broken. So, there must have been a bunch of Negro cage aces back in 1965.
What kind of similarities do you see between what Coach Krzyzewski is doing with Duke’s basketball program now and what your head coach, Vic Bubas, was doing with the team back then?
I got a chance to meet Coach K and actually got some time to talk to him when I was up there a few years ago. He’s very gracious and I appreciate him and what he’s done with the program. But, I have to say, when you talk about similarities, Duke was always a student-athlete program. Student first, athlete second. Coach K has really promoted that, but even when I was there it was that way. I would assume that back in the 1960s there were more programs like that because college basketball didn’t have such a high profile. I don’t think I ever got a break when I was in school. When we were on the road, I had to make-up assignments. That’s how basketball should be in college. Coach K has extended that. When you go into the new center that Coach K has built and you walk in on the first floor and you see all the Academic All-Americans first, that’s a strong statement of where he’s coming from.
In terms of basketball, the game that’s played in the ACC or the NCAA is more like the game that I played in high school. I used to have big talks with my friends, because when we would watch the what has going on in the CIAA Tournament—back when it was big—the ACC was much, much slower then. I remember one year, in 1967, in the ACC Tournament, we played against Wake Forest and the score was 3-2 at halftime. These were the years of the “slow-down” and even Carolina’s “four corners [offense].” It was designed as a slow-down offense. At Duke, we had our version of it that we called the “mongoose.” It didn’t catch on like four corners, but everybody had a slow-down game. So, it was like an admission that, “OK, we can’t run with some of these fools, we can’t play that kind of ball, so we’re going to slow it down. But now, everybody is fast-breaking, playing up-tempo ball, and everybody is playing up by the rim. That’s the game I played in high school. Coach Allen had a rule: If you got an outlet pass, the second bounce had to be across half-court. So, when I first came to Duke, I was surprised that there was this different kind of basketball.
So, tomorrow is this year’s first matchup in the big rivalry between Duke and UNC. What was that rivalry like for you back then?
We always used to key-in on where the last game was before the ACC Tournament because whoever had the last game at home had the momentum going into the tournament. One of the best Duke/ Carolina games in history was during my junior year when Charlie Scott played for North Carolina. It was a triple-overtime game at Duke, for the last game of the season. All season long we had been vying for first and second place in the tournament, so they came in to Duke in first place and we beat them in triple-overtime, then they beat us in the tournament. As far as I can remember, there’s been a rivalry. In fact, in high school I watched the ACC Tournament and saw guys come into Cameron and literally get their jerseys torn off of them, after the game when they tried to run off of the court. There’s a famous scene where York Larese or one those guys from Carolina had just beat Duke in Cameron and was having trouble getting through the crowd without having his uniform ripped off.
A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to hear a panel discussion including the first African-American undergraduate students to be enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill. One of them expressed that he was still a little resentful of the university, especially after walking through one of the buildings (The Carolina Inn) that he wasn’t allowed to patronize back in the 1950s. Do you ever experience any of those same feelings?
Well, yes. You’ve probably heard the thing about Hope Valley Country Club and how the athletic awards banquet was there during my first year at Duke and I couldn’t even go to receive my letter. One of my teammates, Fred Lind, had to bring my sweater and my letter for playing ball to me. But it wasn’t just me. Duke University still had a bunch of functions at Hope Valley Country Club when it was still segregated in 1965. You asked me about going over to N.C. Central, but we went over to Chapel Hill almost every weekend, especially during the summers. So, we got to know a lot of people in Chapel Hill—particularly, the girls. We were very familiar with the girls from Chapel Hill (laughs). So, my perception is that Chapel Hill was better than Duke at the time. Particularly, in basketball, if you talk about Dean Smith. And I have a lot of respect for Dean Smith because we recruited Charlie Scott very heavily at Duke, and, in the end, he chose to go to Chapel Hill. There’s no wonder why because Dean Smith was just more aware of the kinds of things that he would face, and it made the atmosphere more acceptable to him [Scott]. He was at Duke for a recruiting visit and I took him out. You gotta realize that, at that time, there were only two teams for black players—Duke and Maryland. So, when they came to Durham, I was the one that hosted them. So, Charlie and I used to talk a lot. In the end, he decided to go to Chapel Hill because he perceived that that environment was better for him.
I perceive that a lot of that is because of Dean Smith and the accommodations that he made by saying, “Ok, we’re bringing in a black player. Some things have to be different.” Least of which, might have been having an academic awards banquet at a place where he could actually come. Now, having said that, there’s a lot of discussion about me and Coach Bubas and our relationship, but I know that Coach Bubas also went to the max for me in some cases when a lot of people around there would have been more hostile wouldn’t have been ready to integrate Duke basketball yet. I know of some places on the road, where some changes were made. At that time, people weren’t serving black people. We couldn’t go to a hotel and have a training meal if I couldn’t eat with the team. So, if that were the case, changes were made. So, yes. You know, I learned something from talking to Barry Jacobs, which is that this is not just about basketball, it’s about social change.
People were learning how to deal with integration, but basketball was the driving force, basketball made it happen. We were out there on the court, we were visible, we were representing the university, so things had to happen around that. Every time I walked onto the court, there were four white guys that walked on the court with me. They weren’t prepared for those catcalls and jeers. You might say that they were less prepared than I was, like in South Carolina when people started throwing cups and ice at us on the court. I expected that. We went in to Alabama to play, and the Confederate flag is waving, “Dixie” is playing, and people are cursing at us. Me? I got more resolve, so, when I walk-up to the free-throw line, and say to myself, “If I’m ever going to make a free-throw in my life, I’m going to make this one.” And then they’d shut up for a minute. But my teammates had never experienced anything like this. They were coming from places like Pennsylvania and Indian, so this was all a different world for them. They deserve a lot of credit too because they we all breaking barriers.
Further into your career at Duke, did you ever aspire to play on the professional level?
No. It seems kinda strange now, but, as a matter of fact, my folks questioned me playing ball in college. My family was all about education and education first. They thought it was kinda nice that I was playing ball and that I had a scholarship, but when I would go home, they never asked me one question about basketball. They always asked me how my grades were and when would I graduate. I say that because it was a different time then. The year before I graduated, Dave Bing had the biggest NBA salary. He got $16,000 when he signed with Detroit. When I graduated, Kareem got $50,000. But you didn’t think of sports in that way. I had an offer from the Harlem Globetrotters for $11,000 or something like that; and I may have had a $12,000 offer from a team in Europe. I got paid more in starting salary as an engineer. And I didn’t have to pay my own expenses. In those days if you played professional ball, you had to pay your own expense. Maybe, if I had been a bigger guy; but nobody from my team played in the NBA.
Given your involvement with improving race relations at Duke, I’m interested in your opinion on what happened a couple of weeks ago when a Duke fraternity hosted an Asian-themed party, and the partygoers were caught making fun of Asian stereotypes. How does this year’s 50 Years of Black Students at Duke University tie-in with the protests over the incident?
Well, it’s a little surprising isn’t it? Particularly because one of the themes of the 50 Years of Black Students at Duke University anniversary is about how the admission of African-American students to Duke was the first step in opening up diversity. You go to Duke now and it looks like the United Nations. So, it’s hard to imagine how someone could be that [reactionary], at this point in time.
Have you been keeping up with Duke this season or just college basketball in general?
Well, I’ll get interested in it right about now.