For many years, Lefty Driesell and his supporters spoke about how it seemed unfair that he wasn’t in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. For many years, fans of Charlie Scott probably felt the same way.
How could a coach who ranked fourth all time with 786 victories when he retired in 2003, took four different schools to the NCAA tournament and, even if by accident, started Midnight Madness while at Maryland not have a plaque in a museum named after the game’s legendary inventor?
How could a player who was the first African-American scholarship athlete to attend North Carolina, where he was a two-time All-American and led the Tar Heels to back-to-back Final Fours in 1968 and 1969, then later set the American Basketball Association’s single-season scoring record and became a five-time ABA and NBA All-Star, not have one there, too?
Righting the perceived wrong that they had to wait so long to get into the game’s coveted shrine in Springfield, Mass., the 86-year-old Driesell and 69-year-old Scott will be inducted together Friday night.
“It was a thrill to find out that I’m going in the same time as he’s going in,” Scott said in a telephone interview Monday. “Yeah, it’s karma. Certainly things are meant to be. You don’t really have a true recognition for why it happens. It turned out to be a perfect scenario for he and I.”
It will happen Friday night, when Driesell and Scott will not only share the stage of the city’s Symphony Hall with the 11 other basketball luminaries in this year’s Hall of Fame class but also share their memories in a friendship — and brief rivalry — that dates more than 50 years.
“Any basketball coach that can get to the Naismith Hall of Fame, that’s the ultimate award,” Driesell said Monday. ”Basketball has been my life. I started coaching [high school] in 1955. To be in the Naismith is a great honor, but I’m excited for all my players. I think it’s an honor for anyone who’s ever played on one of my teams. They can say I played for a coach who’s in the Hall of Fame.”
One of those players could have been Scott.
Before coming to Maryland in 1969, Driesell had spent the first nine years of his college coaching career at Davidson. A successful high school coach in his native Norfolk, Va., he quickly turned a team that had suffered 11 straight losing seasons before his arrival into a national power behind his own drive and star player Fred Hetzel’s talents.
After Hetzel, the No. 1 pick in the 1965 NBA draft and whose younger brother, Will, would later play for Driesell in College Park, Davidson’s next star was supposed to be Scott, a New Yorker who had gone to Laurinburg Institute in North Carolina for high school.
Scott has long contended his basketball career and life might have gone in a different direction if not for Driesell, who had started recruiting the then-relatively-unknown player during his junior year at the prep school that is nearly equidistant from the North Carolina and Davidson campuses.
“I think if there had never been a Lefty Driesell, there would never have been a Charlie Scott attending North Carolina,” Scott said, repeating a comment he has made often over the years. “My commitment to go to Davidson really opened up all the other schools in the recruiting process.”
Scott said he had never envisioned going to a school in the South until Driesell came along.
“I was looking forward to going to Michigan or Providence or UCLA, but my relationship with Lefty clearly changed my thought pattern on that,” Scott said. “I really committed to Lefty, I didn’t commit to the school [Davidson]. I wanted to play for Lefty. I liked Lefty a whole lot and Lefty liked me.”
Scott initially signed with Davidson and as a result, Driesell was also able to sign another African-American player, Mike Maloy, the same year. Eventually, other schools in the South, including North Carolina and Duke, also recruited Scott, who signed with the Tar Heels.
Scott chose to attend North Carolina partly at the urging of his high school coach, Frank McDuffie, who thought Scott would have a bigger impact on the civil rights movement playing for the state’s flagship school rather than a small private school such as Davidson.
It was the same year — 1966 — that little Texas Western had changed the course of college basketball history by starting five African-American players against Kentucky and beating Adolph Rupp’s heavily favored team in the NCAA championship game at Cole Field House.
Tom McMillen, who as the No. 1 high school player in the nation would help turn Maryland’s program around by signing with the Terps in 1970, said Driesell had no qualms about signing both Scott and Maloy at the same time.
“People think of him as an innovator because of Midnight Madness and what he did at Cole, bringing the seats down [closer to the court], but he was really one of the champions of social justice in college sports,” McMillen said. “He would have had two African-American players at Davidson when there weren’t any in the South. That was not an easy thing to do. He took a lot of heat for that.”
Said Scott: “That didn’t really change things with me. To be honest with you, I didn’t have the vision I should have had. My high school coach, Mr. McDuffie, was the visionary and really understood the importance of choosing North Carolina over Davidson with the integration of the schools. As I kept going, I became more and more enthralled with it.”
When Scott called Driesell to inform him he was going to play for Dean Smith in Chapel Hill, Driesell immediately told Maloy, another New Yorker who had been hosted by Scott on his recruiting visit to Laurinburg.
“Mike said, ‘Oh, let him go there, we’ll kick his butt,’ “ Driesell recalled with a laugh.
As things turned out, the Tar Heels never lost to one of Driesell’s teams in four games during Scott’s college career.
The first two times came when Driesell was still at Davidson, and the Tar Heels knocked the Wildcats out of the NCAA tournament in the regional final both years, the second time on a long, last-second jump shot by Scott at Cole Field House in 1969.
“It was the in-state rivalry. We had beaten Duke, we had beaten Wake Forest and North Carolina and Davidson was the only other North Carolina school [left] of significance,” Scott said. “I always want to beat Lefty. To lose to him, it would have been that I should have been on the other side. I never want to have that part of my legacy.”
The 1969 regional final would be the last game Driesell coached at Davidson.
Within days, he had agreed to come to Maryland, where he wound up spending the next 17 seasons before being forced to step down in the aftermath of Len Bias’ cocaine-induced death in 1986, a scandal that many, including Driesell, said hurt his Hall of Fame candidacy.
While Scott helped the Tar Heels beat the Terps twice during Driesell’s first season in College Park, their relationship grew after Scott went to the pros, first to the Virginia Squires for two years, where he and Maloy wound up as rookies together, and later during an eight-year NBA career that included a world championship with the Boston Celtics in 1976. He finished his two-league career with nearly 15,000 points.
“Charlie’s a great kid, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for him,” Driesell said. “He used to work my camp. He and I are very good friends.”
Scott said he will be thinking about that relationship Friday night since he believes his induction into the Hall of Fame goes back to Driesell offering him a college scholarship and that Driesell’s own inclusion goes back to the players he coached — and one he nearly coached.
“I think more than anything else, it’s validation for Lefty,” Scott said. “He was the first one to recruit me in the South, he was the first one who said, ‘Hey, I think you’re going to be a great basketball player.’ … He put a lot of confidence in me.”