The Secret Game – Scott Ellsworth


This book was recommended to me as an interesting read about a very little-known event of major significance.  My take on it is that it’s a fairly compelling read, but the event it describes didn’t seem as groundbreaking as the author tried to make it sound.

The story takes place in the Jim Crow south during World War II (1943).  The game the title refers to is a basketball game between the North Carolina College for Negroes (now called North Carolina Central University) and the all-white military team from the Duke Medical School.  The game’s importance stems from white teams in the south refusing to play against black schools (or even against teams with black players).  That the game took place at all was a major development.  The players in the game had never played against someone of a different race (even the national tournaments at that time were segregated – the NIT and NCAA were whites-only affairs – the Negro colleges had their own national championship) and the game had to be scheduled on a Sunday morning with no fans (hence the title of the book – it was kept a secret) just so there weren’t any problems with the locals.

Here’s where it seems a little overblown to me: The Duke Medical School team was essentially an intramural team.  Duke Medical School – as you’d expect – didn’t officially have a basketball team.  The team in the book was made up of ex-college players who were drafted by the military while attending medical school.  They all were accomplished players and the team was very good – but it wasn’t officially a school team and it certainly didn’t have any following.  For that reason, it seems a stretch to make this game the benchmark the author made it out to be.  Perhaps the reason it’s unknown is that it really wasn’t that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things?

All that aside, the book is a decent read.  It gives a great picture of what living with racism in the south was like.  The hoops the black schools had to go through in order to travel and just do ordinary things were momentous and hard to believe now.  It’s amazing how virulent and common racism was below the Mason-Dixon line in the first half of the 20th Century.

I’d give this a fair recommendation.  It’s not a must-read, but it’s not a bad way to spend your pages.  It’s a tad overblown in its premise, but it’s informative and generally interesting nonetheless.

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