In the 1940s, something was happening to basketball. Working out of the limelight at the North Carolina College for Negroes and borrowing ideas directly from James Naismith, basketball’s inventor, future Hall of Fame coach John McLendon had invented a fast-paced form of basketball that was literally decades ahead of its time. Across town at all-white Duke University, meanwhile, a group of former college players had formed a top team at the medical school, defeating not only the Duke varsity, but also any team that came their way—all except for one.
Standing in the way was nothing less than segregation itself.
In the spring of 1944, these two remarkable teams—one black, and one white—risked their futures and even their freedom to play a game the likes of which the South had never seen before. A full decade before the Brown decision and the Montgomery bus boycott, and three years before Jackie Robinson desegregated major league baseball, these long forgotten basketball players made some remarkable history of their own.
The full story has never been told, until now.
THE SECRET GAME extends far beyond the story of one unforgettable contest. It is also an intimate portrait of how a forgotten generation of young black Southerners, and their white allies, pushed back against segregation in daring and dangerous ways. Deeply researched and sourced, and powerfully told in the vein of Seabiscuit and The Boys in the Boat, THE SECRET GAME brings to life the story of a generation, and a nation, on the verge of transformative change.
With a history as rich and important as The Blind Side and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, THE SECRET GAME is both a sports story, and an American story—one that takes place not only in North Carolina, but also in Kansas, Indiana, New York, Montana, and Nazi Germany. But more importantly, THE SECRET GAME introduces the nation to a set of remarkable individuals—young men and women who, more than seven decades earlier, can remind us what heroes are, and what they can do.
Scott Ellsworth has written 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, a 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.