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The South's first interracial basketball game, exposed

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Amid the perennial hullaballoo about ACC powerhouses Duke, UNC and N.C. State, there is a fourth local men's team that has quietly—unless you're in the stands, where it is quite loud—accrued another distinguished season.

Even though the North Carolina Central University Eagles play in Division I, are undefeated in the MEAC conference, unbeaten at home and have a 24–6 overall record, they are rarely seen on cable or network television. TV cameras rarely venture into the team's Southeast-Central Durham neighborhood, unless they are trailing ambulances or police cars. Of the team's four nationally televised games this season, none were at home. When the Eagles played the Tar Heels in Chapel Hill last November, the contest aired on ESPNU.

While NCCU's recent accomplishments have often gone unnoticed, its place in basketball history has not, thanks especially to Scott Ellsworth's new book, The Secret Game. Ellsworth chronicles a groundbreaking matchup on March 19, 1944, between the N.C. College for Negroes—now NCCU, then NCCN—and an all-white team from Duke University's medical school.

He weaves 50 years of story lines (and a few unnecessary threads, too) to one spring Sunday morning, when segregation and World War II conspired to bring blacks and whites from the North and South to a locked gymnasium on the Southeast side of town. It was the first integrated collegiate basketball game in the South. Because black and white teams weren't allowed to play against one another, it could have cost people their jobs, even their lives.

The arc of history began a half-century earlier, when basketball inventor James Naismith envisioned the sport as purely recreational, not competitive. Innovations like the fast break quickened the game's tempo, and faster action meant more players and fans. More players and fans translated into a highly profitable business that funded basketball palaces, at least for whites, such as Cameron Indoor Stadium. Those sums did not trickle down to black schools like NCCN, though, where players often inherited hand-me-down uniforms from white colleges.

But even white players were not immune from the draft. Conscription emptied the team rosters on both sides of the racial divide. A mishmash of military teams, such as the future battlefield doctors at Duke Medical School, searched for others to play, like a scrappy college team from NCCN. While the contest made logical sense, NCCN coach John McClendon not only had to hide it from whites in Durham but also from school president James Shepard. Ellsworth notes that, while Shepard was the college's tireless champion, he was widely viewed as a sycophant to white authority, too, and even undercut efforts at integration.

This back-story consumes most of the book, with the final score arriving only on page 273. The takeaway, though, is the unimaginable bravery of both teams.

Nonetheless, on the cusp of the 2015 NCAA Tournament, issues of race persist in college basketball. The sport has become the new plantation system, as universities cash in on their players, 61 percent of whom are black. Universities pay successful coaches million-dollar salaries, yet less than a quarter of Division I coaches are African-American.

One of them, though, is Central's LeVelle Moton. If all goes as planned, he will lead the Eagles to their second consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament. The date it begins? March 17, two days shy of the 71st anniversary of the secret game.

For more ACC history, be sure to check out Barry Jacob's cover story on the Atlantic Cash Conference.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Historic win."

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