The Charlie Scott Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Wednesday, May 11th, 2005
His professional career was supposed to start here, in Boston, joining Jo Jo White and Dave Cowens as part of Red Auerbach’s post-Russell rebuilding plan. Forget that the ABA’s Virginia Squires also had designs on Charlie Scott’s services, and that it was a foregone conclusion that Scott would follow the money and play in the spunky new league with the red, white and blue basketball. Also forget that, had there been no ABA, Scott would hardly have lasted into the seventh round of the 1970 NBA Draft, where Auerbach rolled the dice to secure his rights. Scott was a big-time player from a big-time program, a two-time All-American who had earned a spot on the 1968 Olympic Team, torched archrival Duke for 40 points in an ACC tournament game, and propelled the venerable Dean Smith to his first Final Four. Auerbach, in his infinite wisdom, knew that Scott would eventually yield dividends for the Boston Celtics, if not from the outset then certainly down the road. He was content to let Scott erupt for big numbers against inferior talent in the ABA, trusting that the 6’-6” swingman’s competitive nature would lure him back to the NBA. That it did; the Phoenix Suns, looking to retool and make a run at the NBA Finals, coveted Scott’s versatility and scoring punch. And with the ABA’s scoring leader itching to make the jump after two seasons, he seemed to fit perfectly into Jerry Colangelo’s own rebuilding plans. Auerbach, of course, demanded compensation. He owned Scott’s draft rights, and he shrewdly pried Paul Silas away from the star-starved Suns. Boston posted a 68-14 season with Silas in the fold, and a year later the Celtics were once again champions of the NBA.
Had the story ended there, Auerbach’s seventh round gamble would have gone down as an absolute and unmitigated success, as Silas flourished alongside Cowens, the Celtics climbed all the way back, and Auerbach stamped himself the master architect. Scott, however, was still on Red’s radar. He played well in a Phoenix uniform, churning out three All-Star seasons with the team, but the Suns struggled mightily to win games over this period. They were a mediocre bunch, and unable to establish an identity. By the summer of 1975, Colangelo had had enough; he was ready to take the team in a new direction, and no player was immune to the Phoenix trading block. Boston, meanwhile, had problems of its own. The team viewed Rick Barry and Golden State as its primary threat, and moves were necessitated to ensure another title run. The emergence of Paul Westphal was also another complicating factor; the promising young guard was sure to draw attention in the free agent market at season’s end, with the Celtics getting nothing in return. Auerbach, sensing this, orchestrated a win-win deal between the Celtics and Suns, trading Westphal to Phoenix in exchange for Scott. Scott promptly helped the Celtics to the 1976 NBA Championship, while Westphal blossomed into an All-Star with the Suns.
Born on December 15th, 1948 in Harlem, Scott rarely missed an opportunity to participate in neighborhood pickup games. He began playing organized basketball at the age of twelve. He played bitty-ball first, then AAU ball, and soon fell in love with the game. Prodigious on the court, by age fourteen it was apparent that Scott was equally bright in the classroom. He attended New York's prestigious Stuyvesant High School, which specialized in mathematics, science and technology. Some of the most renowned professionals in the country have attended Stuyvesant, and yet the disarmingly articulate Scott more than held his own.
Scott’s family moved to North Carolina prior to his tenth grade year, where he attended tiny Laurinburg Academy High School. Often described as "an itty-bitty town in the middle of nowhere", there was little else to do but play basketball – something that Scott did at a very high level. The school already had a rich basketball tradition – Celtic great Sam Jones played there, as did sweet-shooting guard Jimmy Walker – while the locals proudly noted that jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie played the trumpet at Laurinburg before dropping out in 1935. Scott enjoyed the friendly, laid-back atmosphere at Laurinburg, thriving at the school while carving out a legacy of his own. His play improved every season, eventually drawing the attention of many Division I recruiters, including former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, then the head coach at Davidson College.
Scott and Driesell hit it off immediately. Davidson, then a national power, appeared a lock for Scott’s national letter-of-intent, but an eleventh hour pitch by Dean Smith and North Carolina changed the course of history. The decision was an agonizing one.
"My mind was made up," Scott said, when asked to reflect on his last-minute change of plans. "Davidson was the place for me. But my high school coach talked me into looking at all of my options. He used to take me to watch the Tar Heels play. Deep in his heart, I think he wanted me to go to the University of North Carolina, so he was very persistent in making sure that I kept an open mind. And the more I visited the campus, the more I became enthralled with the school.
"As exciting as North Carolina was, it was equally hard to break the news to Lefty. He was the first person who really recognized me, noticed me, and gave me notoriety. I had gone to his basketball camp as a junior in high school, and that's when he offered me a scholarship. He told the world about me – no one had really heard about Charlie Scott before I attended Lefty's camp, but that all changed afterwards. It was the start of a tremendous recruiting circumstance."
Scott's decision to play for the Tar Heels was truly groundbreaking. He became the first African-American scholarship athlete in the school's history, helping to pave the way for other Carolina basketball greats such as Phil Ford and Michael Jordan. And as important as his signing might have been, Scott proved to be more than just a symbol of change because the man could flat out play. In addition to being honored twice as an All-American, Scott was All-ACC three times while leading the Tar Heels to two consecutive ACC championships and Final Four berths in 1968 and 1969. Ironically, Scott and Driesell would cross paths once more, this during 1969 East Regional final. With a trip to the Final Four at stake, Scott connected on 10 of 14 field- goal attempts in the second half, including a 20-footer with three seconds left to eliminate Davidson from the tournament.
Following graduation, Scott was selected by the Squires and the Celtics. Boston never really had a chance. He was young and impressionable, and the ABA money was simply too good to pass up. He signed with the upstart Squires, playing so well that he was named Co-Rookie of the Year following the 1970-71 season.