The Secret Game:
A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph

(Little, Brown and Company, 2015)

Scott Ellsworth ’76


At 11 o’clock on a Sunday morning in March 1944, two of the best college basketball teams in the United States did something unthinkable. They played each other.

No cameras, no cheerleaders, no screaming fans greeted the players as they took position on the court. In fact, the gym had been locked in an effort to keep spectators out. The reason for the secrecy was simple. The Duke Medical School team was white. The North Carolina College team was black. And in 1944, the color line in Durham, North Carolina, ran right through the basketball court. Crossing that line was not just an act of defiance— it was against the law.

This extraordinary contest constitutes the focal point of the book, but it’s about far more than a single game. It’s about the evolution of a sport, the tortured legacy of race and repression, and how basketball, which for decades had served as an instrument to defend segregation, finally became a tool to undermine it.

Ellsworth combines an irresistible narrative with outsized characters, particularly the North Carolina coach, John McLendon, who came of age in the Great Depression, as basketball fever was sweeping across the Midwest. Too poor to afford a ball, McLendon and his friends tossed rocks and socks through a playground hoop. His stepmother forbade him to play unless he read the Bible for an hour every day and swore off coffee, soda, snuff, cigarettes, and alcohol—an abstemious regimen he maintained for the rest of his life.

McLendon made his way to the University of Kansas, where razzle-dazzle coach Phog Allen had built a basketball juggernaut. But the Jayhawks maintained an unwritten rule: no black players, no exceptions. Denied the chance to make his mark as a player, McLendon decided to make his mark as a coach. And in this choice he found an unlikely ally— the game’s inventor, James Naismith, by now white-haired and bespectacled, long retired as coach of KU but still a forlorn evangelist for basketball as a means of self-improvement. McLendon became, in essence, Naismith’s last student.

Ellsworth provides a riveting account of how McLendon assembled his squad at the all-black North Carolina College and pioneered the fast break and the full-court press. Even as the team demolished opponents and won the 1941 CIAA Championship, however, they were haunted by a nagging question: how would they stack up against a top-notch all-white team? To find out, coaches and players—black and white—would gamble with their careers.

Ellsworth spent the better part of 20 years working on this book, stockpiling an astonishing wealth of detail that makes the narrative sing. It is a mark of his skill as a writer that by the last page, the reader cares less about the final score than about the broader questions that he raises—whether sports really do build character, whether winning is all that matters, and when it’s okay to break the rules.

Adapted from a review that ran in the Oregonian.

—Chris Lydgate ’90