Across the Line: Profiles in Basketball Courage: Tales of the First Black Players in the ACC and SEC
by Barry Jacobs
Lyons Press, 361 pp.
On March 8, 1969, University of North Carolina guard Charles Scott produced a performance for the ages on the ACC's biggest stage: The junior canned 17 of 23 shots, including 12 of 13 after halftime, to lead the Tar Heels to a come-from-behind win over archrivals Duke in the winner-take-all ACC tournament final. Scott finished the day with 40 points, and a permanent place in Tar Heel and ACC lore.
Yet even in the moment of his greatest triumph, Scott could not escape the loneliness of being a pioneer—the first black player at Carolina, the only black player on the team. "You want to know what I did after I scored the 40 points?" Scott tells author Barry Jacobs in his riveting new book, Across the Line. "I was by myself. Who am I going to go out with? I was by myself after I did that. We had great fun in the locker room. After that we walked out of the locker room; everybody went one way, and I went another way. I had to celebrate it myself."
Scott's story is one of dozens unearthed by Jacobs, an Orange County commissioner who has written about basketball for the Independent, in this timely, spellbinding account of the racial integration of men's basketball in the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Southeastern Conference between the mid-1960s and early 1970s. Based on hundreds of interviews conducted over several years with coaches, players, players' family members, journalists and other observers, as well exhaustive archival and secondary research, Across the Line reconstructs the experience of the first African-American basketball player at every institution in the ACC and SEC. It includes chapter-length profiles of 15 players (at 14 schools) and briefer accounts of an additional seven players (at four schools).
Scott's experience at North Carolina stands out as one of the success stories: He enjoyed near-transcendent glory as a player (two ACC titles, two Final Fours, an Olympic gold medal) and earned the adulation of Tar Heel fans. Scott credits his coach Dean Smith with being unusually sensitive to the unique pressures Scott felt as the first black player in the program. Even so, Smith could not spare Scott from loneliness and social isolation; like Duke's first black player C.B. Claiborne, Scott would spend much of his college years hanging out on the campus of North Carolina Central University.
Another success story is that of Al Heartley at N.C. State, an excellent student who walked on to Norm Sloan's freshman Wolfpack team in 1967-68. He ended his career three years later as team captain and senior point guard, shattering traditional stereotypes about whether African-Americans could serve as the proverbial coach on the floor. To this day, Heartley praises Sloan, saying "The man gave me a chance."
Other pioneer players had decidedly mixed experiences. Claiborne and Maryland's Billy Jones and Pete Johnson played for coaches—Vic Bubas and Bud Millikan, respectively—who were well-meaning but largely oblivious to the various pressures their African-American players faced: taunting and name-calling at road games, subtle and not-so-subtle insults from students and professors in the classroom, the sheer effort required to avoid confrontations and volatile situations off the court.
Conflicts with coaches over playing time and playing style also marked their experiences. At Duke, Claiborne bitterly recalls a pattern of Bubas playing him markedly fewer minutes in home games than on the road; when Bubas told Claiborne that if he grew an Afro he would be confined to the bench, Claiborne kept growing his hair, reasoning that he wasn't playing much anyway. While Claiborne (now a business professor at Texas Southern University) today refrains from criticizing Duke—reasoning that his experience was no worse than could have been expected—Jacobs adds pointedly that to this day "Claiborne's contribution is rarely mentioned and scarcely known. His alma mater has not celebrated his groundbreaking efforts."
Then there are those players for whom being a pioneer was a negative or even disastrous experience. Wake Forest's first black player, Norwood Todmann, saw his life after college descend into a haze of drug abuse; Tom Payne, Kentucky's first black player, is in prison after multiple convictions of rape and other charges; Henry Harris, Auburn's first black player, committed suicide in 1974, two years after leaving the school. Sorting out the connection between these players' experiences in college and their eventual fates is a tricky and probably impossible task, but Jacobs makes clear that difficult struggles as well as the sheer stress of being a public racial target in hostile terrain contributed to knocking once-promising lives badly off track.
By common consensus, the most vitriolic, racist reactions to visiting black players could be found at arenas in the Deep-South schools of the SEC, as well as at Clemson and South Carolina (then an ACC school). Yet Jacobs leaves no room for North Carolinians or residents of other "moderate" states to pat themselves on the back. Rather than just telling the story of each player, he also provides ample, well-documented narratives detailing the particular historical and political circumstances of each school and state, drawing richly on both prior academic scholarship and his own voluminous research. Jacobs' account of the very slow pace of racial progress in North Carolina, especially with respect to public school integration, makes for painful reading, as do his periodic reminders that racist attitudes did not evaporate from the fan base as soon as black players took the court. As late as the title-winning season of 1983, N.C. State coach Jim Valvano regularly received mail from Wolfpack fans decrying his fielding an all-black starting five (a squad that was led by Sidney Lowe, the current N.C. State coach).
Consequently, this is a book that far transcends basketball. Across the Line should be required reading not just for all serious fans of college basketball, but for the current generation of players and students at ACC schools, many of whom may have difficulty comprehending just how recent a phenomenon racial desegregation is, or what a large role in our public life explicitly racist attitudes played until very recently. The book also deserves to be considered a notable and unique addition to the both the social history of the 20th-century South and the history of the Civil Rights movement.
Jacobs' determination to tell these players' stories moves us beyond easy, self-congratulatory narratives about how the desegregation of college sports has been a force for racial progress in the South over a generation. While Jacobs does not dispute that narrative, he both complicates and enriches it, precisely by looking at the difficulties, wounds and triumphs experienced by those who took the first, often painful steps in transforming big-time basketball into an activity that blacks and whites would share together.
Thad Williamson teaches political science and leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He is author of More Than a Game: Why North Carolina Basketball Means So Much to So Many.