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.
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Duke Magazine http://www.dukemagazine.duke.edu/alumni/dm6/secret_txt.html (accessed August 3, 2010); New York Times, March 31, 1996; "The Secret Game, Remembered" http://news.duke.edu/2010/04/secretgame.html (accessed August 3, 2010)