If you just want to read about the incredible basketball game described by Scott Ellsworth in “The Secret Game, A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph,” you can skip the first 250 pages. Then you can read about that secret game played in 1944 between a team of all-white college all-stars at the Duke medical school and the North Carolina College for Negroes Eagles.
But if you skip those 250 pages you will miss a compelling story about basketball, race, and transformation. You will not learn what basketball’s inventor James Naismith, legendary University of Kansas coach Phog Allen, the 1936 Olympics, Hitler, World War II, Duke Hospital, North Carolina College for Negroes founder Dr. James Shepard, Durham’s Black Wall Street, Harlem, segregated buses, and racial murders have to do with the transformation of basketball from a low-scoring, deliberate game to the torrid test of speed and endurance that it is today.
Bringing all these things together is John McLendon, a young black Kansan who loved basketball so much that he enrolled at the University of Kansas to study under Naismith. Naismith and Coach Allen mentored him and prepared him to accept in 1937 a coaching job offered by Dr. Shepard at North Carolina College.
McLendon found that the North Carolina brand of racial prejudice, enforced separation and subordination, was much more brutal than what he had experienced in Kansas. But he endured.
Using lessons from Naismith and Allen and adding things he had learned on his own, he drilled his players in the fundamentals, enforced rigorous physical conditioning, and required them to speed up and down the court, with fast-break on offense and full-court press on defense.
The results were remarkable. Against other black college teams, his team ran up scores like 119-34 over Saint Augustine’s.
But how would they do against white teams? Nobody knew. Back then in the South such a game was inconceivable. Even talk of such “mixing” could bring out the Klan in Durham.
Even in 1944, some campus religious groups at Duke and at North Carolina College were meeting secretly together. These contacts led to the idea of a Duke medical school team of ex-college all-stars challenging the North Carolina College team.
At first McLendon dismissed this idea, knowing that flaunting the color line could cost him his job. But McLendon finally relented, and the Duke team sneaked across Durham one Sunday morning to play in the locked North Carolina College gym.
What happened? In the first half, the North Carolina College team was listless. For instance, Aubrey Stanley had been an energetic key guard for the Eagles. But growing up in Beaufort, N.C., he had been taught to avoid white people whenever possible. If he were ever in their presence, he knew to be careful and deferential. Stanley and the rest of the team were deferential and ineffective against the white strangers. The Duke team led by eight points at the break.
But after halftime, the Eagles were transformed. Stanley said, “All of a sudden, it hit me. These guys weren’t supermen. They weren’t some master race or machines or something like that. They were just a bunch of guys like us.”
The final score: North Carolina College 88, Duke medical school’s team 44.
If Dr. Shepard ever learned about the secret game, he never spoke of it. But when word got around to white basketball players at Chapel Hill and Duke, they slipped over to North Carolina College gym to learn McLendon’s secrets.
Seventy years later, the black president shooting hoops on a White House court should be sending a thank-you to Coach McLendon.
D.G. Martin hosts “North Carolina Bookwatch,” which airs Sundays at noon and Thursdays at 5 p.m. on UNC-TV.