On MLK Day, recalling The Secret Game

On Saturday in Nashville, I did color commentary for Tennessee State’s 76-74 overtime thriller against Austin Peay on ESPNU. There are three national championship banners that hang over John McLendon Court at TSU.

It reminded me of a story that I learned about only a few years ago when I was at Tennessee State preparing for another broadcast. It was then that I met a man named Mice Miller.

Mice was an elderly gentleman and we hit it off immediately. After a few minutes of conversation I asked him if he knew coach John B. McLendon.

“Know him? I played for and coached under John McLendon,” Mice answered back.

That was all I needed to hear as coach McLendon was a hero of mine, as I met him in 1985 in Kansas City during the NAIA national tournament that my team was playing in. I knew of McLendon’s groundbreaking work to break the color barriers of college basketball. He guided the first historically black college and university to three consecutive NAIA national championships in 1957-58-59 with the great Dick ‘Skull’ Barnett at Tennessee State.

McLendon was also the first African-American to coach a professional team as the head coach of the Cleveland Pipers in the old ABA.

Mice shared with me many stories that day, but at one point he pulled me close to him and whispered in my ear, “Mark, have you ever heard of the Secret Game?”

I had not and then Mice shared clippings from articles and later TV interviews with Ted Koppel on ABC. He shared every part of this amazing story with me. On this Martin Luther King Day, I wanted to share his and others' accounts of what is believed to be the South’s first integrated college basketball game. (Note: All quotes are from Scott Ellsworth’s excellent piece of reporting for Duke Magazine and an interview that aired on ABC’s “Nightline”)

In 1944 Durham, N.C., during the days of the Jim Crow laws, John McLendon was the young 28-year-old head coach at the North Carolina College for Negroes. Meanwhile, the Duke Medical School basketball team was a collection of post-graduate All-Americans and All-Stars considered by many to be the best team in the land in 1944 World War II America.

Dick Thistlewaite had been a star at the University of Richmond and played in the post. David Hubbell had played forward at Duke. Homer Sieber had played at Roanoke College. Dick Symmonds was a star at Central Methodist in Missouri. Jack Burgess hailed from Montana and had played for the Grizzlies. Around Durham, Burgess was known for his anti-segregation beliefs. He was a man known for taking action against the prejudice he witnessed.

The North Carolina College Eagles were coming off their most successful season ever at that time. McLendon had just led his team to a 26-1 season. Aubrey Stanley, Henry (Big Dog) Thomas, Floyd (Cootie) Brown and James (Boogie-Woogie) Hardy were the stars on a team that ran McLendon’s fast break with great discipline.

That team was not eligible for participation in the National Invitational Tournament or the NCAA tournaments simply because they were African-Americans, but many -- including the Hall of Famer McLendon -- felt like the Eagles could’ve beaten anyone.

Meanwhile, Burgess and others regularly attended meetings at the local Y in Durham, as students from both sides of the tracks met secretly to discuss ways to overcome racism in the local area. During one of those meetings, the conversation turned to basketball and a bold challenge was issued: What about a secret game between the Eagles and the Duke Medical School team?

McLendon was curious about how his team would compete, but even more important was his vision to, “prepare the team for the possibilities someday for integration.”

Burgess really wanted to play, but some of his teammates weren’t as enthusiastic. Finally, the team came to a competitive conclusion. "We thought we could whup 'em," David Hubbell said in a later interview. "So we decided to find out."

On a Sunday morning, just after 11 a.m. on March 12, 1944, most of Durham’s citizens were attending church -- but not the Duke Medical School team members. They were driving across town toward a tiny gym on a campus that might’ve only been a few miles away, but for all intents and purposes was in another country compared to affluent, all-white Duke.

"To keep from being followed, we took this winding route through town," Hubbell later recalled. To avoid detection they pulled their jackets up over their heads as they arrived on campus and this band of white basketball players snuck into the gym.

"I had never played basketball against a white person before, and I was a little shaky," Aubrey Stanley recalled. "You did not know what might happen if there was a hard foul, or if a fight broke out. I kept looking over at Big Dog and Boogie to see what to do. They were both from up North."

"On that particular morning, you didn't exactly need to play skins and shirts," said Hubbell. They began play and the Duke Medical School got off to an early lead. There was a lot of nervousness on both sides, but after a few minutes the Eagles realized that these white players from Duke were not invincible. The Eagles realized that they could not only play with these guys, but maybe even dominate them.

"About midway through the first half," Stanley remembers, "I suddenly realized: 'Hey, we can beat these guys. They aren't supermen. They're just men like us.'"

"They just beat the heck out of us," Burgess said. "They were very, very good."

The Duke players had never seen anything like this in their barnstorming games across the South. By the end of the game, the scoreboard told the entire story: North Carolina College for Negroes 88, Duke Medical School 44.

After the teams took a break following this history-making contest, the two squads came together and visited. They decided to play some more, but this time the teams would be mixed. Two or three black guys matched up with two or three white guys and they played together. They had fun and they made new friendships.

After the game, coach McLendon called the teams together and they made a pact to never speak of this game for fear of repercussions from the law and any other Jim Crow activists.

The Durham police, as well as other Durham citizens, were never tipped off and everyone left church that morning never hearing about this game. There was no score sheet, no stats and no record, just memories of a game held tightly by a coach and his players.

Yes, they were all McLendon’s players now.

"Oh, I wonder if I told you that we played basketball against a Negro college team," Jack Burgess wrote to his family in Montana after the game. He knew his secret was safe in Montana. "Well, we did and we sure had fun and I especially had a good time, for most of the fellows playing with me were Southerners … And when the game was over, most of them had changed their views quite a lot."

Mice stopped abruptly as we read and reviewed old interviews and articles together. He wiped tears from his eyes and I did the same.

Mice had now shared the secret game with a white man he trusted. I was most honored.