Before the national championship trophy, before the Olympic gold medals and NBA All-Star games, before the Hall of Fame, Patrick Ewing had to make a decision.
It’s a choice that more than 2 million kids make every year, and it shapes futures and connects pasts.
Ewing had to decide which college he would attend.
Ewing, like other talented high school players, had to weigh factors both academic and athletic because of his enormous basketball potential.
Before last summer, though, what very few, if any, people knew was that his decision, Ewing said, was influenced by the Ku Klux Klan.
That claim, made by Ewing in June 2013 on “The Dan Patrick Radio Show,” navigated its way through the Internet and is on its way to becoming basketball legend.
Did the KKK keep Patrick Ewing from committing to North Carolina?
In the fall of 1980, an 18-year-old Ewing, then a senior at Cambridge Rindge & Latin School in Cambridge, Mass., traveled to Chapel Hill for his official recruiting visit to UNC-Chapel Hill.
What happened that September or October weekend isn’t clear, but during the June radio interview Ewing said that there was a large KKK rally in the state while he was visiting.
“You know, I was close [to committing to UNC],” Ewing said during the interview. “I was close. North Carolina was a very good school, but when I went down there, they put me in that Carolina Inn, and there was a big Ku Klux Klan rally in North Carolina when I was there. And I was like, ‘You know what? I’m not coming down here. I’m staying my butt back in Boston.’”
“So the reason why you didn’t go, or the major reason, is the KKK had a rally going on at the time?” asked Dan Patrick, the interviewer.
“Big rally, man,” Ewing said.
Ewing, who declined multiple interview requests for this story, committed to Georgetown University, where he became one of the most dominant centers ever to play, and in 2008 was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He is now the associate head coach for the Charlotte Bobcats.
His college decision would shape basketball history, and his claim that the KKK precluded him from committing to North Carolina — where he would have teamed up with Michael Jordan, James Worthy and Sam Perkins — makes it all the more intriguing.
But a monthlong Synapse investigation — which included interviews with several civil rights and history experts, basketball analysts and those close to Ewing, and analyses of dozens of newspaper articles and other documents — has found no evidence of a big KKK rally in North Carolina during his visit. Instead, Synapse has found that there was a real possibility of a Klan presence on UNC’s campus in 1980, and that his visit took place during a volatile trial in Greensboro involving KKK members.
“My guess is that it wouldn’t have been something big,” said David Cunningham, a sociology professor at Brandeis University and an expert on the KKK in North Carolina during the Civil Rights Era. “I would be really surprised if it were a substantial rally.”
The exact date of Ewing’s visit is unclear.
Mike Sachtlaben, front desk supervisor at The Carolina Inn, where Ewing said he stayed during his visit to Chapel Hill, said the hotel’s oldest reservation records are from 2008. And because turnover within the reservations department is high — most employees in that division stay only three to five years, he said — there is no one currently working at the Inn who was there in 1980 and would remember Ewing’s visit.
Neither UNC’s nor Georgetown’s basketball programs has record of the visit, either, per both universities’ men’s basketball sports information directors, Matt Bowers and Mike Carey, respectively.
Same for Ewing’s high school: a secretary at Rindge & Latin said the school doesn’t have records of students’ recruiting visits after they graduate, and no one there could recall the date or details of the trip.
“I spoke with a few people here in Cambridge, but there are not a lot of people who were around at that time,” Rindge & Latin Athletic Director Tom Arria wrote in an email. “From my understanding coach Jarvis will be able to give you the best information other than Patrick.”
Coach Jarvis is Mike Jarvis, Ewing’s high school coach at Rindge & Latin, “who was to have a profound influence on him,” according to an Aug. 31, 1991, article in the magazine Caribbean Today. (Ewing was born in Jamaica.)
“I taught him how to play basketball,” Jarvis said, adding that he was very close with Ewing. “We lived on the same street.”
Jarvis, now the head coach at Florida Atlantic University, said Ewing, a heavily recruited 7-foot center, took his official visit to UNC in September or October 1980, “before we started his senior season,” which he said began in late November.
That time frame makes sense. A Dec. 13, 1980, article in the Washington Post indicates that Ewing had made visits to each of his final six schools — Georgetown, UNC, Boston College, Boston University, UCLA and Villanova — by the time the story was published.
And an article in The Heights, Boston College’s independent student newspaper, reveals Ewing visited that University the weekend of Nov. 15 and 16, meaning Ewing was visiting schools around the time Jarvis said.
“Ewing lists BC as one of six finalists in his recruiting chase, so the teenaged phenomenon payed [sic] his official recruiting visit to the Heights this past weekend,” the Nov. 17, 1980, article states.
The article also details a seven-step recruiting plan formulated by Jarvis for Ewing. Step four, the story says, occurred on Oct. 4, 1980: “[t]he six expense-paid visitations...were announced.” And according to step five of the plan, Ewing made all six of his visits between Oct. 15 and Nov. 16, 1980. (Earlier in the article, however, it indicates that Ewing had yet to visit Georgetown, which he planned to do the following weekend.)
Sometime in the fall of 1980, a 7-foot high schooler with boundless basketball promise was in Chapel Hill, thinking about becoming a Tar Heel.
In the 1960s, the KKK was thriving and large, unified as The United Klans of America, Cunningham said. It wasn’t uncommon for rallies to draw thousands.
But “by the beginning of the 1970s, that group had largely collapsed,” he said, and three or four different sects emerged and began to compete for power.
“It became a very complicated world,” Cunningham said. “It was a whole set of klans.”
A major rally in the 1980s, therefore, would have been unlikely, he said.
“Rallies were much rarer then,” Cunningham said, adding that those that did take place drew crowds of no more than 100 people.
Reginald Hildebrand, a UNC professor of history and African and Afro-American studies, called Cunningham "the expert on the KKK in [North Carolina] during the Civil Rights Era."
"I would think that any event that Ewing would have heard about that year would have been small and rather isolated," said Cunningham, who recently authored a book titled "Klansville, U.S.A.: The Rise and Fall of the Civil-Rights Era Ku Klux Klan."
UNC law professor Charles Daye, who was a member of the law faculty during Ewing's visit, said he has "no recollection of such a thing." Neither does UNC sociology professor Kenneth Andrews, whom Hildebrand called an “outstanding scholar who knows a great deal about the Klan in [North Carolina].” (Andrews has been at UNC since 2003.)
Synapse uncovered no document that indicated a major rally took place in North Carolina during Ewing’s visit.
A Dec. 9, 1980, hearing before the House of Representatives’ Subcommittee on Crime of the Committee on the Judiciary, titled “Increasing Violence Against Minorities” and documented in a 179-page report, shed no light on a possible Klan rally in 1980. The report details “criminal violence and threats of violence committed by members of violence-prone organizations,” most prominently the KKK.
The Klan was active in North Carolina in 1980, offering guerilla warfare training at a training site near Benson, N.C., the report states, but did not hold any large rally in the state.
Jarvis, the high school coach, was intimately involved with Ewing’s recruitment.
He sent to 150 colleges a letter detailing “Ewing’s academic weaknesses and setting forth a program to compensate for them,” according to an April 15, 1981, Washington Post article, and he was quoted in every story about Ewing’s recruitment uncovered in the investigation.
But the first time he heard of Ewing’s KKK claim was this summer, like the rest of the country.
“I don’t remember talking about it at all,” Jarvis said. “I didn’t know if it was really true or not. That’s very possible.”
Asked whether he thought the KKK deterred Ewing from committing to UNC, Jarvis said, “I have no idea. We never really discussed it.”
“He had a great visit [to UNC],” he added.
The uncertainty surrounding Ewing’s visit presents an intriguing question: What actually happened, if anything, during the fall of 1980 that Ewing could have believed to be a “big rally” by the KKK?
The Bobcats representatives Synapse contacted to reach Ewing said he does not want to talk about the radio interview any more than he already has. They said he has declined several interview requests about his comments since he made them last summer.
“Patrick really doesn’t want to comment on this topic,” wrote Jerome Hubbard, communications coordinator for the Bobcats. “I am sorry for any inconvenience[,] but this is a topic he doesn’t want to touch.”
Synapse found a possible explanation for Ewing’s claim in a Daily Tar Heel article from Friday, Oct. 3, 1980.
The story, headlined “Threats lead to belief Klan may exist here,” appears on the front page of the paper along the left side, as one of that day’s featured stories.
“The Young Klansmen UNC Chapter will hold an organizational meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the Pit. Bring your own sheets,” the opening line reads, citing an announcement in that week’s “Campus Calendar.”
The message was apparently a prank — 30 African-American students and the student body president assembled in the Pit that Wednesday night, and no Young Klansmen members, prospective or established, showed up — but the article went on to describe some students’ concerns about the KKK’s presence on campus.
“Although some students saw the incident as a prank,” reads the story, “others said a number of threats made in the last few years against black students gave them reason to believe some form of Ku Klux Klan group exists on campus.”
In 1979, a black student wrote a letter to the editor of the DTH about the need for a strong African-American presence on campus. She was then harassed and intimidated, but apparently undeterred, and wrote another letter to the editor sometime later.
“A few days later,” the article states, “a white male, who she said looked like a student, walked into her dorm room and put a letter on her roommate’s bed.”
The letter read, “[I]f we wanted to see our ancestors we ought to go to Raleigh to the zoo,” and it was signed “the UNC Klansmen,” according to the student.
In the 1979 Yackety Yack, UNC’s yearbook, there is “a picture of several white fraternity members enacting a lynching,” the story says.
“The one being lynched has his face blackened,” the article reads.
Another black student said he received threatening calls and letters when he was running for DTH editor in the late 1970s, and the Black Student Movement chairman “said he thought there still might be a group on campus with beliefs like those of the Klan,” the article states.
Could this have been what Ewing was referring to in his radio interview?
We might never know for sure, especially since the date of his visit is unable to be confirmed, but it is the closest explanation Synapse has found.
The date of the article — Friday, Oct. 3, 1980 — is during the time frame within which Jarvis said Ewing visited UNC, and most recruits visit prospective colleges on the weekends, meaning there is a better chance he would have seen the story. (According to the article in The Heights, however, Ewing would have visited UNC sometime after Oct. 15, 1980.)
The article’s content is enough to give anyone pause, let alone an African-American high schooler from the North. Ewing could have read the article, or heard rumors around campus, that led him to believe the Klan was alive and well at the University.
“The Klan has this sort of mythic stature,” Cunningham said. “[Ewing’s claim] plays into all the stereotypes — it seems to embody anything that might be of concern in the South.”
Another possibility is that Ewing was exposed to KKK rhetoric during the trial of a group of klansmen accused of murdering five anti-Klan demonstrators one year earlier.
On Nov. 3, 1979, a group of klansmen and Nazis confronted a crowd of communists and other anti-Klan activists protesting at a “Death to the Klan” march in Greensboro. Television footage showed the klansmen, “in the absence of any immediate danger of deadly attack,” opening fire on the demonstrators, killing five, according to Cunningham’s “Klansville, U.S.A.” The event came to be known as the Greensboro Massacre.
The state criminal trial of the four KKK members and two Nazis accused of killing the demonstrators began on Aug. 4, 1980, and ended on Nov. 17, 1980, with the acquittal of all six men by an all-white jury.
Naturally, that provoked outrage, especially in the African-American community.
“It was probably as shocking as the O.J. [Simpson] verdict,” said Winston Cavin, who covered the “Death to the Klan” march for the Greensboro Daily News and was later called to testify in the subsequent state and federal trials. “People could just not believe,” he said.
The DTH published a story on Nov. 18, 1980, about the verdict, and it quoted Harold Covington, a national Nazi leader: “We are absolutely overjoyed. The verdicts are fantastic. It shows we can beat the system on their own ground. The jury's decision represents the wishes of the people of North Carolina. I don't think I'm being excessively dramatic when I say the history books will say that on Nov. 3, the first shots of the second American revolution were fired.
“Tomorrow, the counterattack begins.”
Though there were no KKK rallies during the time of the trial, Cavin said, it turned into such a spectacle that he wouldn’t be surprised if Ewing heard something about it and was intimidated.
“There weren’t any rallies, per se, but there was a lot of media publicity that this all-white jury had acquitted six klansmen who killed five people in that rally,” said Cavin, who now teaches journalism at UNC. “And that would have been enough to give someone the willies.”
There is one problem with this theory, though: according to the Nov. 17, 1980, article in The Heights, Ewing visited Boston College the weekend before the verdict was announced.
If that’s true, Ewing would have been in Massachusetts instead of North Carolina the weekend of Nov. 15 and 16, 1980, so the verdict itself wouldn’t have been the catalyst for Ewing’s fears. Instead, he could have heard something about the trial while he was in Chapel Hill. (The DTH published several news stories or briefs relating to the trial in the fall of 1980.)
“I don’t fault Patrick Ewing,” Cavin said. “Memory is a funny thing.”
What is certain: Ewing chose Georgetown instead of North Carolina and the other four schools, won the 1984 national championship and an Olympic gold at the 1984 summer games, and became one of the greatest big men in history as a Hoya, then a New York Knick.
Had he committed to UNC, the team would have been one of the best ever, said Jack McCallum, a former Sports Illustrated writer who covered the NBA during his nearly 30 years at the magazine and earned a reputation as one of the best basketball writers in the country. He also wrote the book “Dream Team,” a detailed chronicle of the U.S. men’s basketball team’s gold medal victory at the 1992 Summer Olympics. Ewing, an 11-time NBA All-Star, was a member of that team, and McCallum has talked to him more than most.
McCallum did not know of Ewing’s KKK claim until our interview. “I’ve talked to Patrick 100 times and never heard a thing,” he said.
UNC’s starting lineup would have likely been Ewing, Jordan, Perkins, Worthy and Jimmy Black. Sixty percent of that lineup is in the Hall of Fame.
“You would have had to think they would have been one of the best college teams since UCLA,” McCallum said, referring to legendary coach John Wooden’s Bruins teams in the 1960s and 70s, who won 10 national championships, finished four seasons 30-0 and during one stretch won 88 games in a row.
Without Ewing, the Tar Heels won the 1982 national championship, against Ewing’s Hoyas.
With him, who knows?
“[Adding Ewing] had to be good for at least one more [national title] for Carolina,” McCallum said.
“Patrick was a truly ferocious college player. He was one of the few guys who was a No. 1 pick because of his defense,” he added.
There would have been two major differences with Ewing in Chapel Hill, McCallum said: Jordan would have been an even better defensive player, and Ewing would have gotten more offensive touches while sustaining his defensive dominance.
“Ewing spent most of his college career not as an offensive player,” he said. “Patrick was a pretty loyal soldier. He would have been even more of a force defensively [at UNC].”
What’s more, Ewing might have convinced Jordan to stay at UNC for all four years, McCallum said. (Jordan left UNC in 1984, after his junior year, and was selected third overall by the Chicago Bulls in the same year’s NBA draft.)
And that could have changed both the men’s legacies and basketball history.
Ewing graduated in 1985, after his senior year, and was chosen first overall by the Knicks in that year’s draft.
“If they would have stayed,” McCallum said, “who would have been the first pick?”
The second pick in the 1985 draft belonged to the Indiana Pacers, and they selected Oklahoma’s Wayman Tisdale, who had a solid NBA career but nothing compared Jordan’s or Ewing’s. Had Jordan stayed at UNC for all four years, the Pacers could have ended up with Ewing or Jordan instead of Tisdale. And Jordan, had he been picked before Ewing, could have been a New York Knick.
Jordan and Ewing’s relationship would have been far different, too. Jordan was known for his incessant trash talk to the big man and never let him forget who had won multiple NBA titles, and who had won zero.
“The dynamic of the relationship would have been different,” McCallum said. “Michael always had this thing of lording it over Patrick. Whereas if Patrick had gone to Carolina,” Jordan would have respected him more.
Jarvis agreed with McCallum’s assessment: if Ewing had committed to UNC, he said, there’s no telling how dominant the Tar Heels could have been.
“It would’ve been incredible.”
Dylan Howlett contributed reporting.