Perceptions in life are as monumental as the individuals who created the opportunity for change. One perceives notions of greatness that are associated with people they admire or people who are like them. History has taught me that the more you know about where you come from, the more likely you are to appreciate the pioneers who helped pave the way.
I remember seeing the documentary Black Magic on the late great John B. McLendon. The documentary caught me off-guard because it talked about McLendon as a pioneer. Having attended North Carolina Central University, that name resonated with me because it is the name of the basketball facility in which my Eagles play their games, so when it started, I was listening with a curious and self-absorbed ear.
McLendon’s prowess at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) is the equivalent to the respect that the name John Wooden commands to major universities throughout the United States. I say this because McLendon was actually mentored by John Wooden. His impact on the game of basketball is one that has left a lasting impact on players of all generations.
Black and white players were very seldom, if ever, seen playing together in the 1940s. Segregation was real, and society was okay with that at the time. The sports world was slowly breaking barriers as Joe Louis shocked the world in 1938, but the acceptance of integration was still going to be several decades away from becoming the norm.
In many areas of the country, there were conflicts of a different manner. Bragging rights were always going to create competitive means even if they never get to actually resolve the issue. When the Negro League was competing with Major League Baseball, they eventually had to add a game at the end of the year where the Major League All-Stars and the Negro League All-Stars would face off for those bragging rights.
This brings me to Tobacco Road, an area defined by the legacies of Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). The problem is that Duke and UNC aren’t necessarily in the same city so the competition isn’t necessarily over ownership of territory, but just simply for bragging rights. The issue of territory would have to be defined by the essence of bragging rights for the city of Durham. The only other college in the city boasting a basketball team was McLendon’s North Carolina Central Eagles.
The idea of blacks and whites playing against one another in the South wasn’t something that was going to go down easily. It would be something that might cause people in the South to become uncivilized and potentially dangerous for all of the players involved. Duke had just come off a Southern Conference Championship, and the Eagles had only lost one game that season as well but they had been locked out of postseason play.
Although there was racial tension in the South, students at Duke were quietly accepting the notion that prayer and fellowship with blacks was acceptable.
In early 1944, the Y.M.C.A. chapters at Duke and North Carolina College had begun to meet, at considerable risk from the police, who vigorously maintained the color line. "It was dangerous," recalls one former Duke student. "We had to lie on the floor of the car going to those meetings."
Organizing the game was a bit of a challenge, but it was pulled off. In the South, the only logical time to do something that you don’t want anyone to know about is usually a Sunday morning because everyone is at church or sleeping in from partying all Saturday night. So on March 12, 1944, it went down.
Just before 11 A.M., the Duke team piled into a couple of borrowed cars. "To keep from being followed, we took this winding route through town," Hubbell recalls. They pulled their jackets over their heads as they walked into the small brick gym.
The Eagles won the contest 88 to 44.
The story of this game has been kept a secret for many years.
The meeting remained publicly unknown for more than 52 years, until Scott Ellsworth, a Duke University graduate and historian, wrote an article about the historical event that appeared in The New York Times on Sunday, March 31, 1996. "The Secret Game" was born.
Duke University is one of the most heralded universities in the world. The fact that this game is even talked about today is a testament to its success. As a graduate of North Carolina Central University, it is one of the many milestones that our proud university membership can boast. I hear the stories from elderly Eagles, and all of them speak of this game with pride. Duke may have lost the game on that day, but the university won the hearts of many Eagles worldwide simply because Duke gave the little guy who was a little different a chance. That to me speaks volumes about character.
Color Commentator for Time Warner Cable Sports Network NC/SC/OH and NCCU Sports Network. Washed up athlete who used to ball, now I write and call.