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

Image of The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball's Lost Triumph
Release Date: 
March 10, 2015
Little, Brown & Company
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“The Secret Game is a compelling and truly American story.”

In The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph Scott Ellsworth recounts the powerful story of a remarkable basketball game that took place in the spring of 1944 between an all-white military team from Duke Medical School and a team from the North Carolina College for Negroes.  

During an era in our history where a world war was beginning to change many aspects of daily life across our country, the game itself becomes a notable pivotal intersecting of racial segregation slowly being rasped away within the maelstrom of a world war and a growing need of black men, who, as U.S. soldiers, were demanding an equal place within American society.    

His book is a must read for anyone with an interest not only in basketball but those who also have a sense of the importance sports have played in dragging our country away from the vestiges of a still-segregated nation.  

The game took place at a time when a routine interaction between an African American and a white southerner could and often did explode into unimaginably violent and tragic confrontations. The very thought of this kind of game taking place was unthinkable to vast portions of those living in the deep south and their participation in the game could have cost the players and coaches their lives.

Through careful research and interviews with many of the game’s participants, Ellsworth’s chronicling of basketball lineage expertly connects such basketball luminaries as the inventor of the game of basketball Dr. James Naismith, with John McClendon, the great coach of the North Carolina Eagles and a man generally unknown to only but the most fervent students of the history of the sport of basketball.    

Ellsworth’s story also blends in larger-than-life personalities like North Carolina’s star center, the flamboyant Henry “Big Dog” Thomas, who if born 70 years later would most certainly have been as celebrated a sports figure on a par with former NBA star Charles Barkley. He poignantly describes the players from the two teams coming together from polar opposite upbringings to meet within the crucible of sports competition where the skills of the players alone decided their level of equality.  

The book is also alive with wonderful sports tidbits to delight the true basketball fan noting a medal won at the 1936 Olympics by a country not known today for producing world class basketball talents and a note from a 1930s coaching book on how to deal with that era’s version of “trash-talking.”

These many threads are intricately woven throughout the book, drawing the reader into this forgotten but important sporting event against a backdrop of a country slowly coming to grips with the first tremors of the Civil Rights movement.

The Secret Game is a compelling and truly American story.