On March 12, 1944, a Sunday morning, an all-white team of Duke medical students and the all-black varsity squad of what was then the North Carolina College for Negroes played basketball.
It was in the depths of World War II, and the dark days of Jim Crow. They played behind locked doors at the N.C. College gym and the game – which N.C. College won, 88-44 – has ever since been known as “The Secret Game.”
That’s also the title of a new book by Michigan author Scott Ellsworth, who tells the story behind the game and the stories of those who played it and made it happen. Ellsworth is in Durham to talk about the game and his book, at 7 p.m. Thursday at Motorco.
“I was so lucky,” Ellsworth said last week. “I did a lot of work, yes, but I was so lucky to find this generation of 80- and 90-year-olds who were willing to open up to me.”
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Ellsworth’s book builds up to the Secret Game – which doesn’t start until page 263 – with a combination of social history, basketball history and personality portraits. The dominating personality is John McLendon, who coached the N.C. College Eagles, from 1937 to 1952.
McLendon’s teams played a high-scoring, fast-breaking style of basketball, wearing opponents down with the sheer pace of their game, a style years ahead of that era that the Eagles could play because McLendon was also years ahead in conditioning – having his players run “suicide” sprints past exhaustion in the gym and miles across open country outside Durham.
“It seems second nature to us today,” Ellsworth said. “But Americans weren’t running in the 1940s.”
The inventor and the Klan
McLendon learned his own basketball, in part, from the game’s inventor – James A. Naismith, who, by the time McLendon met him as a University of Kansas undergraduate in 1933, was an all-but forgotten professor of physical education.
His book gives Naismith a rounded-out biography, from his farmboy youth in Ontario to honored stature at the Berlin Olympics. There are also the Secret Game players, such as the Eagles’ tough, hard-partying Henry “Big Dog” Thomas, from the gritty steel town of Farrell, Pa.; and Duke medical student Jack Burgess, a Montanan who had no use for the race code he found down South.
And, there is Durham, a tough – very tough – mill town with a racially harmonious veneer over a strictly segregated and none-too-peaceable reality that broke into the open with the social strains of wartime.
Just months after blacks and whites played basketball together, a white bus driver shot and killed a black GI who had talked back to him, and was declared not guilty of murder by an all-white Durham jury.
A German Jewish professor found refuge from Naziism as a professor at N.C. College. Then, when he had black faculty colleagues over to his house in a white part of town, he found the Ku Klux Klan on his doorstep with a threat and the same kind of hate he thought he had left behind overseas.
A change of mind
Ellsworth said he had a very different book in mind about 20 years ago, when he went to a program at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass.
“I was going to write about the 1957 Final Four with Carolina and Kansas,” he said. But he happened to meet and get to talking to McLendon, who mentioned that he had known Naismith.
“I thought, wow, this could be a good interview here,” Ellsworth said, and later he went to visit McLendon at his home in Ohio – where, at Cleveland State in 1965, he became the first black head coach at a predominantly white university.
“He showed me this list of racial firsts in basketball he had been a part of,” Ellsworth said. “At the top of the list he had ‘1944 – first integrated college basketball game in the South.’ ”
Ellsworth at first thought it was a mistake – it should have been 1954 or 1964. But McLendon said it wasn’t and told Ellsworth about the game, and Ellsworth forgot all about a book on the 1957 Final Four.
“At that point I was off to the races,” he said. First, he wrote a New York Times Magazine story about the game (nando.com/nytellsworth), then spent almost 20 years, off and on, tracking down the story.
“I think I went to about 25 states,” he said. He found 1940s road maps and bus schedules and followed the route Aubrey “Stinky” Stanley rode from home in Beaufort to college in Durham, and visited the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem where the Eagles played Lincoln University from Pennsylvania in what was billed as the “National Negro College Championship” – and lost in a game McLendon said was fixed.
And he went to meet the people, who “invited me into their homes, into their lives, they walked immediately into my heart.
“They had good memories, they were confident, they were happy to tell all sides of things,” he said. “It was a jackpot, to tell you the truth.”
Meet Scott Ellsworth
The Regulator Bookshop sponsors an appearance by Scott Ellsworth, author of “The Secret Game” at 7 p.m. Thursday at Motorco, 723 Rigsbee Ave. Admission is free.