The Atlantic Coast Conference was born in 1953 and the first basketball champion was N.C. State. In fact, N.C. State won the first three ACC Championships from the 1953-'54 season until 1955-'56.
The period of 1953 to 1966 is a very significant period of time in ACC basketball history as that is when the conference gained exposure outside the region. Five ACC teams went to the Final Four in that era, three of them Duke Blue Devil teams, not too shabby for a brand new league.
During those initial thirteen glorious years of the ACC, N.C. State won five conference titles, Duke won four titles, Wake Forest won two, and Maryland and UNC won one each.
Those nine titles between State and Duke in the beginning set up the tradition of the ACC, where the champion more often than not comes from the Tobacco Road schools.
But during that era, the league had a secret. You could see it when you went to the games or watched on television. Until the 1966 season, there were no black players.
None. Zippo. The Big O (no pun intended).
This is a story about three ground breaking ACC African American basketball players. The first black player in the ACC, the first Black ACC Player of the Year, and the first Black National Player of the Year from the ACC.
In the 1965-66 season, the first black player came into the ACC. His name was Bill Jones and he played at Maryland. He was a guard on the team with Gary Williams—the current Terrapin head coach.
Jones played for Coach Bud Millikan, who had been an All-American guard for Henry Iba at Oklahoma State. Mr. Iba taught his men to "not look at skin color but, look at the person's character" in determining how you treat people. Solid advice.
Bill Jones was a raw-boned 6'1" 165, but an injury kept him from showing his true potential during his first season. Bad enough, but another obstacle faced the young man.
Throughout the season, Jones faced jeering fans, angry bus drivers, and was not always accepted in the cities where the Terrapins traveled. At one stop, the entire team decided to go without eating rather than enter a segregated establishment.
Pretty bad situation before a game, isn't it?
While Jones was the trailblazer, the following season the second and third black players of the ACC stepped on the court to play. Those two players in the 1966-'67 season were Julius Johnson of Maryland and C.B. Claiborne of Duke. It would not be any easier for them to blend into the ACC lifestyle.
After those three initial black players at Maryland and Duke, several great talents came along at the other league schools. Virginia even recruited a black player in the 1970s. This made the Cavaliers the last ACC school to sign and play an African-American basketball student-athlete.
But then came the 1970-71 season, producing the first Black ACC Player of the Year. His name? Charlie Davis of Wake Forest.
The ACC Player of the Year Award is given yearly by the Atlantic Coast Sports Media group and these fellows were of a different generation than the young fans who eagerly supported the black players on the court.
In the previous two seasons, Ed Leftwich and Charlie Scott, both black, had led their two schools to the ACC Tournament Championship. However, each had been denied the player of the year award. Grumblings of racism in the voting was whispered throughout the region.
That all changed with Davis of Wake Forest in 1970-'71 season. Davis was just so good there would have been a congressional investigation if he had been denied the trophy.
A 6'1" guard, Davis made his living eating up pressure defenses, and he was rewarded by becoming the first African-American to win the Player of the Year award in the ACC.
Win it he did but, the Demon Deacons did not win the ACC. The whispers returned, "anyone can do it on the small stage of the ACC."
Fast forward to the 1972-'73 season. A virtual atomic bomb of ability in a young man named David Thompson literally exploded upon the scene.
Outside of Bill Russell and Lew Alcindor, Thompson is the greatest college basketball player I have ever seen. Every bit as good as Oscar Robertson.
With his leaping ability, soft outside shot, sword-swift first step, and incredible toughness around the rim, Thompson led N.C. State to an unbeaten season in his first year ('73) and the National Championship in his second year ('74).
At 6'4" and 198 pounds, Thompson used his high-wire act to overcome 6'11" Bill Walton and the UCLA Bruins in the 1974 Final Four (See pictured above).
Thompson's 28 point performance that Saturday afternoon was the key to stopping the UCLA string of seven consecutive national championships.
Thompson won the ACC Player of the Year Award all three seasons that he was at State but, he also was the AP (Rupp Award) National Player of the Year in 1974, the AP, NABC(Coaches), U.S. Basketball Writers, and Naismith winner in 1975.
He thus became the first African-American ACC player to win the National Player of the Year Award.
Since the days of the great sky-walker named David, there has been a tendency toward inclusiveness in the ACC, and an acceptance if you will, that players are players regardless of color.
There have been many great examples of that in the league, too many to list here, be they black or white.
Since we started our discussion with the 1965-'66 season, we should point out that the NCAA Champion that year was Texas Western.
The Miners of Don Haskins were the first team to win the title with five black starters, defeating Kentucky 72-65, in a game played at the University of Maryland.
You should note that Haskins, like Maryland's Bud Millikan, had played for Mr. Iba at Oklahoma State. "The character of the person, not the color of the skin."
In 1983 N.C. State won another national championship, this time with five black starters. That accomplishment made the Wolfpack the first ACC team to win the national title with five black starters.
"We've come a long way, Baby."