Cover image for The secret game : a wartime story of courage, change, and basketball's lost triumph
The secret game : a wartime story of courage, change, and basketball's lost triumph
Ellsworth, Scott, author.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Little, Brown and Company, 2015.
Physical Description:
viii, 387 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Story of a 1944 illegal basketball game between the North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham and the Duke University medical school team.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
GV885.72.N8 E45 2015 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
GV885.72.N8 E45 2015 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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Winner of the 2016 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing

The true story of the game that never should have happened--and of a nation on the brink of monumental change

In the fall of 1943, at the little-known North Carolina College for Negroes, Coach John McLendon was on the verge of changing basketball forever. A protégé of James Naismith, the game's inventor, McLendon taught his team to play the full-court press and run a fast break that no one could catch. His Eagles would become the highest-scoring college team in America--a basketball juggernaut that shattered its opponents by as many as sixty points per game. Yet his players faced danger whenever they traveled backcountry roads.

Across town, at Duke University, the best basketball squad on campus wasn't the Blue Devils, but an all-white military team from the Duke medical school. Composed of former college stars from across the country, the team dismantled everyone they faced, including the Duke varsity. They were prepared to take on anyone--until an audacious invitation arrived, one that was years ahead of anything the South had ever seen before. What happened next wasn't on anyone's schedule.

Based on years of research, The Secret Game is a story of courage and determination, and of an incredible, long-buried moment in the nation's sporting past. The riveting, true account of a remarkable season, it is the story of how a group of forgotten college basketball players, aided by a pair of refugees from Nazi Germany and a group of daring student activists, not only blazed a trail for a new kind of America, but helped create one of the most meaningful moments in basketball history.

Author Notes

Scott Ellsworth has written about American history for the New York Times , the Washington Post , and the Los Angeles Times . Formerly a historian at the Smithsonian Institution, he is the author of Death in a Promised Land , his groundbreaking account of the 1921 Tulsa race riot. He lives with his wife and twin sons in Ann Arbor, where he teaches at the University of Michigan.

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* In 1943, John McClendon, the last student of James Naismith, basketball's inventor, was the basketball coach at North Carolina College for Negroes in Durham. He was an innovative and aggressive coach who was changing the game on the fly with a fast break offense and pressing, athletic defense that foreshadowed modern basketball. Across town was Duke University, which boasted an ad hoc military team (all white, of course) from the Duke medical school. The team members were all former college stars and seemingly unbeatable. A challenge game was proposed between McClendon's black squad and the medical students. It couldn't be played openly in segregated North Carolina, so the two teams played in secret. Ellsworth, author of Death in a Promised Land (1982), about the 1921 Tulsa race riot, here tells another fascinating story of brave people chipping away at the seemingly insurmountable monoliths of segregation and Jim Crow. A historian with the soul of a poet, Ellsworth offers a remarkably nuanced, vibrant, and eloquent account of life in the South during WWII, and his portraits of the principal players in this secret drama are multitextured and complex.--Lukowsky, Wes Copyright 2015 Booklist

Library Journal Review

Duke history professor Ellsworth's first book in more than 30 years (Death in a Promised Land) tells the story behind the first racially integrated college basketball game in the American South, a secretly planned and played 1944 contest pitting the high-scoring, fast-breaking Eagles from the North Carolina College for Negroes (NCCN; now North Carolina Central University) against an all-white, geographically diverse military recruit squad from Duke School of Medicine. Ellsworth focuses on each of the various coaches, players, professors, and college administrators involved in this covert, dangerous, and historically significant matchup while framing their consistently fascinating profiles within the contexts of Southern racial prejudice in the World War II, pre-Civil Rights era and the rising popularity of basketball in gymnasiums across America. Innovative NCCN coach John McLendon and Duke's influential team leader David Hubbell feature prominently, but there are many other participants whose intertwined and impressively detailed biographies are woven into a compelling tale that is told in the author's impeccably clear prose. The first book-length story of the participants in this momentous event is similar in theme and tone to Peter McDaniel's Uneven Lies. VERDICT This thoroughly researched but accessible book is recommended to both sports fans and American history buffs. [See Prepub Alert, 9/29/14.]-Douglas King, Univ. of South Carolina Lib., Columbia (c) Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

A Note to the Readerp. ix
Prologue Spring 1944p. 3
Part 1
Chapter 1 Aubreyp. 9
Chapter 2 Negroes with LaSallesp. 22
Chapter 3 Big Dogp. 41
Chapter 4 "Nobody Wanted to Mess with Him"p. 54
Chapter 5 Fathers and Sonsp. 70
Chapter 6 Lawrencep. 89
Chapter 7 "That's How You Do It!"p. 100
Chapter 8 Berlin, 1936p. 115
Chapter 9 Racehorse Basketballp. 125
Chapter 10 Hossiersp. 141
Part 2
Chapter 11 City of Stonep. 153
Chapter 12 Blue Devilp. 166
Chapter 13 Medicine Ballp. 178
Chapter 14 "He Can't Sit There"p. 178
Chapter 15 Burgessp. 206
Chapter 16 A Knock at the Doorp. 222
Chapter 17 "You Could See It in Their Eyes"p. 234
Chapter 18 New Yorkp. 242
Chapter 19 The Secret Gamep. 255
Chapter 20 "Did You Hear About..."p. 277
Chapter 21 Look Awayp. 289
Epiloguep. 304
Afterword: The Ghosts of Jim Crowp. 307
Acknowledgmentsp. 313
Notesp. 319
Indexp. 377