Secret Basketball Game of 1944

Written By Adrienne Dunn

During the Jim Crow era, African American college teams were barred from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Invitational Tournament (NIT). But a brave few found ways around these restrictions. A secret game held in 1944 between a white team from Duke University and a black team from North Carolina Central University was one of the first integrated sports events in the South.

In early 1944, black and white students from North Carolina Central University and Duke University met at the Durham YMCA for clandestine prayer meetings. A friendly challenge led to a basketball game between the NCCU varsity team and the team from Duke’s medical school to determine the best team in Durham.

It was a match-up of heavyweights. Many believed that Duke’s medical school team was even better than the school’s varsity team, which had won the Southern Conference championship. Across town, John B. McLendon coached the NCCU Eagles to an impressive 19-1 record. 

The two teams scheduled the game for Sunday, March 12, 1944, when most of Durham’s citizens were at church.  Because transporting the NCCU team to Duke’s campus would have been difficult, the teams arranged to play at NCCU. As the Duke players arrived on campus in borrowed cars, they hurried into the gym, after which Coach McLendon locked the doors. In the gym, there were only players, coaches, and a referee; a few students peered through gym windows to watch. The Eagles used a fast-break strategy created by McLendon and won 88-44.

After the informal game, the two teams integrated their rosters and played skins and shirts. When this game concluded, the NCCU team invited the Duke students to the men’s dormitory for refreshments. After socializing for a few hours, the medical students returned to Duke.

No one uncovered the secret game: not the Durham police, not the premier Durham newspapers like the Durham Morning Herald and the Durham Sun. Even though a reporter from the Carolina Times (an African American weekly) knew about the game, he agreed to not publish the story to protect McLendon and his team.

On March 31, 1996, historian and Duke graduate Scott Ellsworth wrote a New York Times article detailing the secret game, which had been the first known integrated college basketball game in the South. “Black Magic,” a 2008 ESPN documentary on college basketball at historically black colleges, included the story of the secret game. The game has become symbolic of how resistance to Jim Crow occurred outside the traditional civil rights movement.