The Secret Game united what law divided

Staff WriterApril 16, 2010 

  • Student leaders at Duke and N.C. Central University have lined up about 120 participants in a daylong basketball tournament Saturday at NCCU.

    The Bull City Showdown tournament starts at 8 a.m. at the Leroy T. Walker Physical Education Complex and will be highlighted by a 3 p.m. viewing of a video about the 1944 mixed-race basketball game, followed by an all-star game featuring players from the day's tournament games. The 3 p.m. events will be held at McDougald-McClendon Gymnasium on Lawson Street.

— As he scanned the legendary basketball coach's bio, interviewer Scott Ellsworth suddenly stopped on this line:

"1944 - Coached N.C. College vs. Duke Navy Medical School in a private, unpublicized, no spectators allowed, basketball game."

Must be a typo, Ellsworth thought.

Coach John McClendon, who had provided the information, must have meant 1954. Or 1964. Surely, there had been no whites-versus-blacks basketball game in Durham in 1944. It would have been illegal. And dangerous. Crazy, really.

But it did happen.

When a group of students from Duke and N.C. Central University get together Saturday at NCCU for a basketball tournament, they'll commemorate that game, a daring defiance of the Jim Crow era that remains a historic thread connecting two vastly different universities just miles apart.

The N.C. College for Negroes - now NCCU - was a lightning-quick team coached by McClendon, a legend-in-the-making who learned at the foot of James Naismith, basketball's inventor.

The all-white Duke team wasn't the university's best-known squad; it was just a group of medical students, many former college players, which had reportedly bested Duke's varsity team in a scrimmage. It did not have a connection to a Duke Navy program, as McClendon had mistakenly written in his bio.

The game grew from some friendly trash talk between members of each university's YMCA student groups, Ellsworth would later write. McClendon's squad couldn't play white teams, which meant it couldn't compete in postseason NIT or NCAA tournaments.

So the game was set for March 12, a Sunday morning -- when most folks, including local police, would be in church, Ellsworth reported in a 1996 New York Times Magazine article that introduced "The Secret Game" to the world.

'Two different cities'

The Duke players took a circuitous route through town and some entered the gym with jackets over their heads. The doors were locked behind them.

David Hubbell, the Duke team's 6-foot-3 center, re called this week that a Duke graduate student arranged the game and that players didn't know where they were going when they drove over.

"Durham was two different cities, one black and one white," recalled Hubbell, 87, a retired surgeon now living in St. Petersburg, Fla.. "The driver didn't tell us where we were going. Maybe he was afraid we'd back out."

Under the Jim Crow laws of the time, which mandated segregation in public places, the game was illegal.

"What they did was simply astonishing," said Ellsworth, now a history professor at the University of Michigan. "They risked their careers; they risked their freedom. This was something black and white people did not do in the South."

McClendon's N.C. College team won handily, 88-44.

After, the players took their newfound camaraderie a shocking step further, splitting into mixed teams to play again. Shirts and skins, Ellsworth noted in his story.

Though the game was treated as official, with a referee and game clock, it remained a secret for five decades. Local police never learned of it, nor did the local media, aside from one reporter from the Carolina Times, a black newspaper in Durham, Ellsworth reported. McClendon persuaded that reporter not to write about the event.

"No scorecard exists, and as far as official basketball recordkeeping is concerned, the game never took place," he wrote in the New York Times Magazine.

Duke senior Jesse Huddleston learned of The Secret Game about a year ago and was quickly inspired. Now, he is one of the student organizers of Saturday's tournament, a daylong event attempting to bridge a divide - partly real, partly perceived - separating Durham's two four-year universities.

The differences are many. Duke draws internationally and routinely enrolls the sons and daughters of corporate titans. NCCU draws heavily from Durham and the state; many of its students are the first in their families to attend college. At Duke, tuition, fees, room and board total $53,390 a year. NCCU students pay about $14,320, yet most need at least some financial aid.

A call for interaction

Cross-town student interaction is sporadic, and Huddleston, who grew up in Atlanta, wants more. He wants Duke students to get out of the comfortable bubble the university provides and look across town. They may just like what they see.

"The world isn't just Duke," Huddleston said. "Not a lot of students have constructive, substantive experiences off campus."

But a core group of about 30 NCCU and Duke students are doing just that, volunteering in the community and putting together events like the basketball tournament Saturday. Naturally, they created an "NCCU + Duke" Facebook page. It has 140 members.

""We've come to realize that many of us come from similar social backgrounds," said Mitchell Wallace, 20, a Durham native and Northern High School graduate who is now a sophomore at NCCU. "Many of the things that we thought would divide us just aren't there."

Hubbell, the Duke team's center, had a similar realization that day in 1944. After the game, the players went to the N.C. College team's dormitory to shower and dress. And then they talked.

"We had the same complaints," said Hubbell, also a Durham native and graduate of the old Durham High School. "Too much work, too much studying to do."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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