THE SECRET GAME by Scott Ellsworth


A Basketball Story in Black and White
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An account of a little-known basketball game in which the opponents played as much against Jim Crow as each other.

One morning in March 1944 in the segregated South, an all-white team from the Duke University Medical School played an exhibition against the Eagles of the North Carolina College for Negroes. The game occurred in a mostly empty gym behind locked doors; even key school officials were left unawares. Most other facts about the game are less than clear, as no known documents survive. From the kindling of surviving participants’ memories, Ellsworth (African-American History and African Studies/Univ. of Michigan; Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, 1982) constructs a book heavy in historical context and biographical sketches but noticeably short on the particulars of the game referred to in the title. It’s not the author’s fault that the only reporter to witness the game tore up his notes or that the game registers and score sheets of Eagles coach John McLendon were lost by a former player. However, the brevity of the game account, which comes deep into a detail-laden narrative, would have benefited by greater disclosure of sources (it’s not always enough to tuck a note at the back). In order to get to the game, readers must travel distant byways (overseas with James Naismith, for instance), as the author gives significant space to an assemblage of characters that aren’t easily understood as significant. Many sports books bog down in play-by-play detail, but that’s not the problem here. Even so, like many sports books, the prose contains heightened language—e.g., “a juggernaut of speed and finesse that left opponents demolished, referees exhausted, and fans in awe”—and mentions of “revolution” and a “new kind of basketball.” Given the game’s clandestine nature, there’s little evidence that it changed societal perceptions. Again, no foul there.

An intriguing sports tale more suited to a magazine piece than a book.

Pub Date: March 10th, 2015
ISBN: 978-0-316-24461-9
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Little, Brown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15th, 2015


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