The Transylvania Times -

By John Lanier

Sports' Impact Felt Far Beyond The Games – Brevard NC


Alex Macaulay

Sports, from eye gouging to college basketball, have always played an integral role in North Carolina, according to Western Carolina University professor and historian Alex Macaulay.

Macaulay spoke at the Transylvania County Library's Bag Lunch Series last Tuesday in the Rogow Room. His lecture, "It's Not Just a Game: Sports and Society in North Carolina," was the first in a series of presentations in the "Hometown Teams" program.

Macaulay said North Carolinians, like many Southerners, have historically shared a deep connection to their communities and physical environment.

Prior to the Civil War, most sports in the state dealt with "turf and field, things like horse racing, cockfighting, hunting and fishing. In more backcountry areas, men's social standings were often calibrated due to their physical prowess. Thus, they participated in "brawling and eye gouging."

According to Macaulay, most proficient eye gougers came from Virginia, Georgia and the Carolinas, with some people considering North Carolinians the best.

One traveler from that time period wrote, "in some parts of these states, every third or fourth man appears with only one eye."

Macaulay read an account from one observer in 1807 who described a contest between a Georgian and North Carolinian as "fast clenched by the hair and their thumbs endeavoring to force a passage into each other's eyes. At length, they fell to the ground and then, in an instant, the uppermost sprang up with his antagonist's eye in his hand."

Macaulay said it was the North Carolinian who lost not only the fight and his eye, but also "the honor of his state."

During and after the Civil War, baseball became the ascendant sport in the state and became "an intensely local pastime."

North Carolina Confederate soldiers learned baseball from their Union counterparts. On July 4, 1862, Union prisoners playing baseball in Salisbury was "immortalized" on a lithograph based on a sketch made by one of the prisoners. The scene, said Macaulay, depicted a rather "serene" image of the game and time.

He presented, however, an account of another game played by Union soldiers in which Confederate skirmishers "descended upon the game, shot the right fielder, captured the center field and then for good measure stole the ball as they took off back into the woods."

By 1870, baseball was being played across the state by people of all races and socio-economic standing. The advent of more railroad lines allowed teams to move more easily from one town to another while newspapers and telegraphs made it easier for fans to follow their favorite teams and players. Since most of the state was rural, the focus was on local, not professional teams located in urban areas. Consequently, local and regional players would receive as much publicity as those in the major leagues.

Black residents also took up baseball and created their own leagues. In 1891, students at North Carolina A&T were upset that part of their baseball field had been transformed into a vegetable garden.

In mill towns, Saturday afternoon baseball games were commonplace.

"Mill owners took these contests seriously as well," said Macaulay.

In the 1930s, one man, Frank Webster, got a call from the owner of a Burlington hosiery mill. He had no experience making hosiery, but he had of experience "turning double plays."

Macaulay said other owners paid performance bonuses to their players. One paid his players $2 for every hit and $5 for every home run.

College Football

College football began as a club sport on college campuses in the 1880s. Wake Forest had club teams in 1882 and N.C. State had club teams in 1883.

Macaulay said college football embodied the ethos of the "New South." Many business and civic leaders saw it as a perfect "accompaniment to industrialization."

They said it provided the leadership skills that would transform "captains of the football team into captains of industry."

On Thanksgiving in 1888, Trinity College played UNC. Trinity won.

He said it also reflected the ideal of a "muscular Christianity," and was a way to display their virility and courage "in a respectable fashion."

Not everyone was in agreement about the game's Christian virtues. The Raleigh Christian Advocate claimed football was a "source of evil and no little evil." The editor of the Advocate, who was also a trustee of Trinity, said football did not enhance manliness but "corroded" it. Other Christian leaders claimed that football led to "reckless drinking, lewd behavior, gambling and other immoralities."

Women's Sports

Participation in sports was not restricted to men. North Carolina Normal and Industrial College in Greensboro, a women's college, was one of the first to promote participation in sports. The goal of the college was to instill in its students "a sense of mission and assertive self-confidence in their roles as teachers and as athletes."

The students were taught to be strong and self-reliant, as well as delicate and feminine. Each afternoon students were required to walk about the campus for an hour.

The introduction of basketball at the college was a little more difficult. Many thought it was wrong to develop a woman's body through "competition in a man's sport" like basketball. Macaulay said it was this concept of public competition that some found "rewarding" and some found "alarming."

In 1898, women at the college took up basketball with the juniors challenging women in the other three classes. They not only taught themselves how to play the game, but organized and officiated them. Two years later an outdoor space was created for the women to play basketball. Since school administrators did not want to draw the attention of outsiders, the playing area was surrounded by a large hedge so that outside onlookers could not see the women.

Bennett College, a college for black females, took a different approach to their basketball program. Administrators and students embraced athletic competition. The Bennett team practiced against local boys' high school teams. They traveled throughout the state and region to play other teams. Bennett went undefeated in 1937 and was declared the nation's best female college basketball team.

Macaulay also said it provided them opportunities to mock the segregated South. Whenever they saw white men hitchhiking, they would often stick their heads out of the bus windows and yell "Jim Crow car" as they went by.

Basketball allowed women of all races to transcend "limited expectations during a crucial period in their lives."

In 1949, Gastonia's Highland High, a black school, won the women's state championship. The team's best player, "Stringbean" Thompson was initially gawky and clumsy. Even though people told her she should quit playing the game, she continued to refine her skills. She scored 23 points in the championship game. She later married a classmate, Irving Worthy, and they had a son named James. Irving admitted that he did not play basketball and that James, who became a star at UNC and with the Los Angeles Lakers, got all of his basketball talent from his mother.


Macaulay said North Carolina began to earn its reputation as a "basketball state" soon after World War II ended. He said people in other states refer to North Carolina as "a basketball state with a football problem."

One reason basketball blossomed was due to a number of "colorful, charismatic and talented coaches."

Everett Case had coached high school basketball in Indiana and had won four high school championships there. In 1946 he took over the program at N.C. State and recruited so heavily from Indiana that his N.C. State teams were referred to as the "Hoosier Hotshots." Using a fast break offense and pressure defense, they defeated then national powers Georgetown and Holy Cross. They also won 15 straight games against the Tarheels of UNC.

On Feb. 25, 1947, State played UNC in Raleigh. Fire chief said he would strictly enforce the attendance restrictions in the 3,200-seat gymnasium. Ninety minutes before tipoff the gym was full and arena employees locked the doors. Undaunted, fans outside pulled a door off its hinges, snuck in through the basement or second floor. One girl broke a window in the men's locker room, crawled through the window and proceeded to the court. The fire chief ordered the building cleared, but the order was ignored. He then cancelled the game and had to be escorted out by police. The game was never rescheduled.

In 1949 N.C. State opened its new arena, Reynolds Coliseum. It seated 12,000 fans, making Raleigh, according to one reporter, "the basketball capital of the world."

That same year he started the Dixie Classic tournament, which pitted Wake Forest, Duke, UNC and N.C. State against four top teams from throughout the nation.

In 1952, Frank McGuire became the coach at UNC. His team won their first game against N.C. State, 70-69. Case's team then defeated the Tarheels by 21 and 32 points the next two times they played each other.

McGuire, who had coached at St. John's in New York City, began to use his New York connections to recruit players. A Sports Illustrated cartoon depicted a subway line running directly from the Bronx to Chapel Hill. Instead of downplaying the influx of players from New York, McGuire highlighted it, stating "New York is my personal territory."

Macaulay said the 1956-57 Tarheel team will go down in history as one of the greatest teams ever. Led by All-American Lennie Rosenbluth, the starting five all came from the New York area. They won the Dixie Classic and the ACC Tournament and entered the NCAA Tournament undefeated. They then defeated Michigan State in a triple overtime semifinal game. In the finals they faced Kansas, with superstar Wilt Chamberlain. To mess with 7-foot 2-inch Chamberlain's mind, McGuire sent out his shortest player, who was 5-foot-11-inches, for the opening tip. Chamberlain scored 23 points, 7 below his national average, as UNC won the national championship in triple overtime and capped a perfect 32-0 season.

When the team returned to Chapel Hill, a reporter wrote the celebration "was like a Fourth of July and Easter Parade celebration combined."

The rise of basketball in North Carolina coincided with the entrance of television into many residents' homes. Now even "lukewarm fans" could experience and enjoy the games.

The success of basketball teams boosted state pride at a time when the state's standing in education and income were some of the lowest in the country.

The state's two private schools also did well. Under the coach "Bones" McKinney, Wake Forest won ACC championships in 1961 and 62, and in 1962 they made it to the NCAA Final Four.

MaCauley said that in a game against Manhattan, McKinney was standing on the sidelines when an errant pass from one of his players hit him in the chest. McKinney, "without missing a beat," passed the upcourt to Wake Forest guard Billy Packer, who scored on a layup.

"Everyone in the arena saw it except for the refs," said Macaulay, adding that the basket counted.

Vic Bubas was building a strong program at Duke as well. From 1960-66, the Blue Devils won more than 20 games each season. In the 1962-63 season they went 27-3 and made it to the Final Four. The next year they lost to UCLA in the championship game.

Bubas had a rule of never getting gas at the same gas station twice in a row so that he could meet more people in the community.

Coach John McLendon also was making a name for himself at the North Carolina College for Negroes, now known as North Carolina Central. He had studied under the game's inventor, Dr. James Naismith, and like Case, recruited heavily from Indiana. He was one of the first coaches to emphasize physical conditioning as well as basketball fundamentals. The team practiced twice a day and players would take 45-minute runs three times a week.

"They ran other teams off the court time and time again, which irked other coaches," said Macaulay.

The coach at Shaw, in order to neutralize the speed and conditioning of McLendon's players, had the floor of the Shaw gym waxed several times before the two teams played. McLendon's slipped and slid repeatedly during the first half as Shaw took the lead. At halftime one of the players suggested that the players take off their shoes and socks and play barefooted. Despite the protestations of the Shaw coach, McLendon showed him that there were no rules requiring socks or shoes; McLendon's team won 87-44.

Agents of Change

Macaulay said one of the best and most significant games in 1944 was never recorded in a typical score sheet. Due to the influx of World War II veterans, a number of talented basketball players participated in Duke's intramural program. The intramural team comprised of medical school students rivaled Duke's actual team. A member of that team was heard bragging that they were the best team in Durham, but a member of McLendon's squad overheard the boast and eventually the two teams decided to play each other.

"This seemed like madness at the time," said Macaulay. "Earlier that year a black soldier had been killed by a white bus driver for not moving to the back of the vehicle quickly enough. Racial tensions were running high."

The game between the two teams was played at the North Carolina College for Negroes campus on a Sunday at 11 a.m., a time in which most of the Durham police would be in church.

Macaulay said both sides were nervous about playing each other before the game. They were concerned not only about what would happen if they were caught but also what might happen during the game itself. The final score was 88-44 in favor of McLendon's team.

After a short break, the teams split up and played, according to Macaulay, "a truly integrated game of shirts and skins." One player described that as 'just God's children horsing around with a basketball'."

Macaulay said such events, of which there were many, began to break down some of society's barriers. In the mid-1960s, high schools across the state integrated their teams. He said that Brevard High was the first school in the state to have an integrated football team. That team had a record of 10-1-1 and ended up state 3A Co-Champion.

However, he noted that once the teams left practice, they often returned to different neighborhoods and different worlds.

Sports, however, offered high-profile athletes and coaches a platform from which to address the issues of inequity and injustice. In 1966, basketball player Charlie Scott became the first black athlete at UNC, which began to transform the way many residents thought about the university, its teams and the state. Scott was both an athletic and academic All-American.

Thousands, however, did not welcome this change. Scott and members of the university received hate mail. Scott not only faced "nasty crowds on the roads," but some UNC fans "would turn on him" if he had a bad game. After helping the U.S. win a gold medal in the 1968 Olympics, and being the best player in the ACC the following season, he was left completely off five ballots for the All-ACC team.

Macaulay said some thought Scott's activism might have cost him votes. In 1968, African Americans in the university's food services division began demanding better wages and working conditions. The black student movement, including Scott, became involved on the food service workers behalf. What had been a "minor story now became a much bigger deal."

Macaulay said Coach Dean Smith encouraged the players to get involved.

"He (Smith) praised them for taking a stand," said Macaulay.

Smith knew that Scott and another black player would be labeled as troublemakers. But Smith added that there are "few heroes in history who have not been vilified by the public in their time."

Macaulay said "Sports have represented much more than just games."

He said sports have met many individual and community needs, from providing income to improving self-confidence and pride.


Powered by ROAR Online Publication Software from Lions Light Corporation
© Copyright 2019