It took a bit of convincing to get 71-year-old Willie Cooper to talk candidly about what might have been.
"This is an emotional thing for me," Cooper says. "It’s hard to go back into it without remembering, you know, it’s not the dream. So it has haunted me all this time."
Willie Cooper was the son of poor sharecroppers in Wilson, North Carolina. He had to come a long way from that world to have any kind of dream at all.
"My biological father died when I was 8 years old," Cooper says. "We eventually ended up on welfare, and my mother, she could not take care of us. I basically ran wild. I was in the streets in the mornings, trying to find food, foraging for myself."
Cooper says he only went to school when he wanted to. And he rarely wanted to, because his classmates made fun of his Salvation Army wardrobe. He got into fights. He barely showed up for fourth grade and was going to be held back a year. Cooper’s mother was diagnosed with a nervous system disorder.
The Mitchells, Basketball And UNC
But then Human Services found Cooper a foster home in nearby Elm City.
"Human Services, they found a home for me seven miles away in a place called Elm City, N.C.," Cooper says. "And I moved out to this family. They were the Mitchells. And there was one sister who was a teacher at the school that I was at, and she kind of took me under her wing, kind of forced me to read books. Things like Moby Dick and Anne Frank’s story, and a lot of things just to kind of stretch my mind. And since someone had taken an interest in me, which had never happened before, I just started blossoming. They helped me round the rough edges off of me. It wasn’t like I was a foster child. And there I was, 11 years old, and that summer, on my birthday, they bought me a Schwinn Bicycle, brand spanking new."
Willie Cooper began to excel at school, and in basketball.
"I picked up basketball probably around the sixth grade," Cooper says. "It appeared that I was going to be fairly tall. In the seventh grade, I made the team. That was an exciting thing to happen — to get a uniform and to be part of something, you know, a team."
He went on to star on the basketball team at Frederick Douglass High, where the 6-foot-2 forward’s defensive abilities attracted the attention of future Hall of Fame head coach Dean Smith, who at that time was struggling with a losing program at the University of North Carolina.
"One day, at one of the games, some white guys showed up at my high school with a Super 8 movie camera and they were interested in finding some black players that could get into UNC, because they wanted to break the color barrier there," Cooper says. "They said that Dean Smith was interested in guys that could play and do the schoolwork, and he sent them down to take a look at me."
Cooper had good grades and he was admitted to UNC’s School of Business in 1964 on an academic scholarship. But his basketball skills weren’t enough to get him onto the varsity team and earn him an athletic scholarship and a place in history as UNC’s and the ACC’s first black scholarship athlete. He walked on to the freshman team, then coached by Dean Smith’s assistant, Ken Rosemond.
"I played well," Cooper says. "I was a very good defensive player, and the studies went well. My freshman year, I had a pretty good average."
Cooper's Side Of The Story
Smith and others had been working for years behind the scenes in Chapel Hill to integrate UNC's varsity team. In 1963, he thought he had the right man when he recruited Lou Hudson. But Hudson couldn’t pass UNC’s rigorous entrance exams.
Cooper wouldn’t be the guy, either.
The official story, when anybody bothers to tell it, has him meeting with Dean Smith sometime before the summer of 1965. Smith tells Cooper that he’d like him to try out for varsity. Cooper tells Smith that he got a D on a crucial accounting exam, and that he’d be dropping basketball because it had distracted him from his studies. But when you press Cooper, it becomes clear that’s not the whole story. It began with his dorm assignment that first year.
"They put me in a room with three football players, white guys, and they were none too happy," Cooper says. "And so they went to Dean — somebody went to Dean. In my mind, I got the message, and so I moved out."
And then there were the away games, where the fans and the restaurants and the hotels were anything but accommodating.
"You know, I was 19 years old at this time," Cooper says. "And I had struggled through freshman year with them not taking me to South Carolina when the team went to South Carolina. And then when we went to Virginia, I was refused service. I wanted more than anything else to play basketball."
"This is an emotional thing for me. It’s hard to go back into it without remembering, you know, it’s not the dream. So it has haunted me all this time."Willie Cooper
Willie Cooper graduated from UNC in 1968 with a degree in business administration. He served in Vietnam, earning the rank of captain before going on to a 20-year career with IBM. He started a successful lawn service company in Chattanooga, where he now lives. But he says he struggles when he thinks of the missed chance to keep playing basketball and to maybe, just maybe, make history.
"I have to reach in here and there to find things that were positive for me," Cooper says. "The fans loved me at Carolina, that I had the fortitude to stick it out, that I got a good college education. These are the kinds of things that I think about because, otherwise, these negative thoughts would overcome me."
But that’s not the end of Willie Cooper’s UNC story. That’s because Cooper’s son and daughter played basketball for his alma mater.
"Oh, yes. Now that’s a great story, because my son, Brent, he played freshman ball. Tonya was a varsity player," Cooper says. "And, in fact, I lived out my dream through her. When I got to see her on the varsity wearing that blue and white, it would bring me to tears, because the women played at the same gym that I played in when I was there."
Cooper also chokes up when he talks about the national title Tonya helped the UNC women’s team win in 1994, and about her graduation from UNC with a master’s degree in social work. A lot has changed since that family in Elm City, North Carolina took in a troubled 10 year old, showed him love and gave him a chance to succeed.
"If you look back, I’m probably the most unlikely person to have gone through what I did," Cooper says. "And I think my story is not so much the Carolina thing, but the Mitchell family that took me in."
To learn more about the integration of UNC and the ACC, check out Art Chansky’s book "Game Changers: Dean Smith, Charlie Scott, and the Era That Transformed a Southern College Town" and J. Samuel Walker’s book, "ACC Basketball."
This segment aired on February 25, 2017.