The Arts

The History of Madness in North Carolina

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Reviews of:

Game Changers: Dean Smith, Charlie Scott, and the Era That Transformed a Southern College Town, by Art Chansky (UNC Press, 2017)

The Road to Madness: How the 1973-1974 Season Transformed College Basketball, by J. Samuel Walker and Randy Roberts. (UNC Press, 2017)

We all know there should have been NCAA tournament basketball games in Greensboro this month. Instead, Greenville, South Carolina hosted a regional weekend and Greensboro lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue, and perhaps the very designation of “tournament town” itself as the ACC also contemplates other locations for its tournament.

We also all know who to blame: the geniuses of bigotry behind the HB2 legislation. Neither the ACC nor the NCAA will land in Greensboro–or anywhere else in North Carolina–until HB2 is repealed (the ACC tournament was scheduled for Brooklyn this year regardless of HB2, but the conference has made clear that it won’t be back until the transgender-phobic law disappears.).

Obviously, discrimination against the LGBTQ community is not the first discrimination this state has embraced and not the first time that discrimination has intersected with college basketball. In 1966, no African-American basketball player had ever played for the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Coach Dean Smith and New York City playground legend Charlie Scott where about to change that fact. Art Chansky’s book, Game Changers, documents Scott’s difficult decision-making process and includes his final high school years spent at an all-black school in Laurinburg.

The Laurinburg Institute had a pipeline to some of the great NYC players of the era–including perhaps the most legendary of all: Earl “The Goat” Manigault (who had the apocryphally-reported 50 inch vertical leap). The intrigue around the recruiting of Scott to UNC has some cloak and dagger details and Lefty Driesell and Davidson College developed permanent grudges against Dean Smith as he pulled Scott away from the Wildcats lair.

But the real story of Chansky’s work revolves around the “transformation” of a Southern college town. How does a town that thinks of itself as progressive respond to the revelation that the reality does not match the perception? Chansky documents the racism and segregation of Chapel Hill in the 1960s and doesn’t shy away from depicting the viciousness of some of the populace–including a restaurant owner who locked in sit-in protestors and then poured bleach and other toxic substances over their heads. Chapel Hill residents who think rosily of the oasis of their town would benefit from the historical reexamination Chansky provides.

Apparently the title makers at UNC Press had transformation on their minds. The transformation in The Road to Madness is less compelling and less convincing. But it is a much better book on college basketball. The authors, Randy Roberts (who wrote the excellent book on Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, Blood Brothers,) and J. Samuel Walker, make the case that the 1973-74 season marked the end of a dynasty (it did) and the awakening of the NCAA tourney as a major cultural force. The fact that the Final Four took place in Greensboro makes it an even more interesting proposition.

North Carolina State won that year’s tournament and thus ended UCLA’s seven-year run. David Thompson, Tommy Burleson and Monte Towe became Wolfpack legends, but the ’74 season could have been the most boring in memory and the behemoth of March Madness would still have inevitably risen.

There are a spate of sports books (and general history books) that argue for a particular year as the single pivot point in history. All of them argue too adamantly for the speculation of their thesis (I think the most egregious of these books is Greil Marcus’s Like A Rolling Stone, which argues for one song as the transformational moment in history.). The one thing that is clear from the cover of this book is that 1974 marked the peak year of the full mustache as the height of male fashion. It’s a transformation we’re all glad to see wane.

Still, the actual sports writing in The Road to Madness is so good. It is difficult to convey the drama and immediacy of a great basketball game, and Roberts and Walker do an admirable job of bringing the important details to the page. The reliving of NC State’s holy upset of UCLA is told in vivid, minute-by-minute exegesis that withholds the right information until the right moment.

And maybe the game did transform the Gate City. “For the city of Greensboro, the state of North Carolina, and the South as a region, hosting the 1974 NCAA championship tournament was a rare and greatly valued privilege,” the authors argue. We’ve squandered the privilege. “Greensboro was not an obvious or natural choice,” they continue, but it became the center of the basketball world because there was “an almost fanatical interest in college basketball.”

The authors also suggest that the civil rights sit-in movement and Greensboro’s role in racial justice movements gave the NCAA committee reason to believe that this city could effectively host a multi-racial event. It will take a similar movement to convince the outside world that Greensboro does not hold with the bigotry of the state legislation. If we want another tournament, we might need another transformational movement against discrimination.

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