Ten years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat, and a year before Jackie Robinson signed with the Dodgers, the first interracial basketball game was played in the South—a dangerous, precedent-shattering contest.
It was a Sunday morning. The all-white Duke University medical school basketball team played against the all-black North Carolina College Eagles in a locked gymnasium. The teams played two halves of fierce, fast basketball, and as extraordinary as the game itself was, what happened afterward surprised everyone.
The teams took a water break and spent some time chatting and getting to know each other. One player began leisurely taking jump shots, and then another joined. Eventually, all of the players decided to play one more time, a shirts-and-skins game, with teams that included both black and white players.
The road to the first integrated basketball game in the South is recounted in The Secret Game, the second book from Scott Ellsworth, a lecturer in LSA’s Department of Afroamerican and African Studies. The book describes the risks that each team took in making such an unlikely event happen, and it portrays the people on each side of the court who kept working to make the game a reality. It’s a story of heroic players and coaches challenging segregation during a time period, Ellsworth says, that we don’t read much about.
“History books often start with this miraculous day when Rosa Parks doesn’t get off her seat in the bus,” Ellsworth says. “For a lot of high school history classes, that’s when the civil rights movement starts. What I learned while I was researching this book was that there was this whole generation of people in the South during World War II, mainly African Americans but whites, too, who at great personal risk were fighting an undeclared war against segregation.”
The book shows those people—players, coaches, and onlookers—and how they arrived in that locked gymnasium on that Sunday morning.
But the book—like the game—almost didn’t happen.
An Important Assist
There was once an adage in New York publishing circles that said, “The smaller the ball, the better the book.” Multiple bestselling tomes had been written about golf and baseball, but by the mid-1990s, not many serious books had been written about the history of basketball. Scott Ellsworth decided that had to change.
And he found a compelling story almost right away: the 1957 Final Four.
“It’s a great story,” says Ellsworth. “It features North Carolina University, which was still segregated, and the University of Kansas, who had the first great African American college star in Wilt Chamberlain. Also in the mix were two-time defending tournament champion San Francisco University and Michigan State.”
The 1957 tournament allowed Ellsworth to tell the basketball story that he really wanted to write, discussing the eventual desegregation of the sport as well as the increase in tempo from very slow to very fast through the 1950s and ’60s. He interviewed a man named John McLendon for the book, and that’s when the story changed.
“McLendon was a trailblazer,” Ellsworth says. “He was the first black coach in the pros, the first African American assistant to the United States Olympic basketball coach, the first black coach to win a non-segregated national championship at Tennessee State in the ’50s, the first black coach at a Division I historically white university.”
Ellsworth was blown away hearing and reading about what McLendon had accomplished, but there was one detail that puzzled him. On a page that McLendon had handed him, an entry was listed stating that McLendon had coached one side in the first integrated basketball game in the South, in 1944. Ellsworth was certain that the year must be a mistake.
“I said, ‘Hey coach, I think you mean 1954,’” Ellsworth says. And McLendon said, no, actually, he didn’t. And that’s when Ellsworth realized he was writing the wrong book.
Blue Devils and Details
Ellsworth knew right away that he had an important story in front of him, one that hadn’t yet been told.
“It was thrilling,” Ellsworth says. “I knew I had discovered something, and I knew how lucky I was to find it.”
Ellsworth got to work. He crisscrossed the country, going everywhere the story touched, including Montana, New York City, and all over North Carolina. He interviewed all of the surviving members of both the Duke team and the Carolina College Eagles, using his training as an oral historian to help him glean the important elements and get as many verifiable details as possible.
Ellsworth used almost 300 books and articles that he obtained through U-M’s Hatcher Graduate Library—“the best library in the world for a writer,” he calls it—but much of the story came from the interviews he conducted. Moments in history like the Duke and Eagles game, Ellsworth says, exist primarily in the memories of the people who lived it.
“Much of the history of African Americans and much of the history of poor people in the United States is in the minds of its older citizens, and they are no more or less reliable than a letter written by a government administrator, for example,” Ellsworth says.
“As a historian, you have tools to help you test what things happened and what things didn’t, and those are going to be the same voices that tell you the story.
“As for the game, there is literally one contemporary document that mentions it,” Ellsworth says. “But I had a lot of people who played in it and who witnessed it who I talked with, and those sources have all been invaluable to me.”
Shared History, Common Ground
The Secret Game, now a New York Times bestseller, has received praise from critics across the country. It was recently awarded the 2016 PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports writing, and a movie option was purchased by Legendary Pictures, which also produced the Jackie Robinson biopic 42.
All of the work related to the book—its methodology, content, and argument—are related, Ellsworth says, to his work as an instructor in LSA, where he teaches courses on race and crime and on Southern history and literature.
For his class titled “Race, Crime, and the Law,” Ellsworth brings in a number of guest speakers—including former drug dealers, ex-convicts, police officers, defense attorneys, federal prosecutors, and former FBI agents—to illuminate multiple sides of the issues surrounding the intersection between race and the law so that students can practice seeing any problem from multiple perspectives. It is important work, Ellsworth says, that is essential to fostering dialogue between groups and helping students embrace broader ideas of justice and a larger understanding of the human experience.
“Part of my work at the University is trying to get people from diverse backgrounds to have the confidence and the courage to open up about what they truly believe so we can have an engaged, respectful discussion,” Ellsworth says. “But part of that, too, historically, is that we’ve got to get on the same page about what our history is. If we can stop pulling punches, if we can look at our past honestly and see it for what it was, then maybe we can get onto some common ground so we can see the present as it is, and then work to improve the future.”