A Secret Ballgame

Posted May 25, 2009, at 4:28 p.m.

A historic basketball game was played on a Sunday morning in 1944 in Durham, N.C., in a locked gym with no spectators allowed and the players, referees and the timekeeper sworn to secrecy.

The reason: It was illegal, a violation of the Jim Crow laws then in force across the South, which mandated racial segregation in all transportation, schools and other public places.

The white players from the Duke University medical school walked to the gym of the North Carolina College for Negroes with their jackets pulled over their heads like criminals, for they were indeed committing a criminal act. They played against the North Carolina College team led by an African-American coach, John McLendon.

The black team won 88-44, but the game remained a secret from the public for more than 60 years. It came to light last year in a four-hour documentary shown on ESPN. It included film from that game and told about the many black players and coaches of the era from black colleges and universities, who helped develop basketball as a major sport while always pushing against the American version of apartheid.

A review last year in The New York Times said the film was “as heartbreaking as any about civil rights.” It said that the producer, Dan Klores, “sets it against the indignities of segregation but depicts the black colleges as educational safe houses where children of cotton pickers and sharecroppers felt nurtured and motivated.” In those days, the National Collegiate Athletics Association, or NCAA, wouldn’t let black colleges compete in its tournaments. Later, the white colleges realized what they had been missing and began snapping up the black basketball stars.

The film centers on Mr. McLendon, who studied in the 1930s at the University of Kansas under James Naismith, who is said to have invented indoor basketball. The review reported that “Mr. McLendon adapted Dr. Naismith’s teachings to create a motion offense.” One of his players called the system of spinning and feinting “jungle ball.” Another said, “They never saw anyone run up and down the court like that.” The review noted that Mr. McLendon was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., but as a “contributor,” not a coach.

Bob Herbert, a Times columnist, picked up that criticism this month as the film won a Peabody Award. He wrote that, while the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., has honored great players of the old black leagues, the Basketball Hall of Fame has mostly ignored the outstanding old-time black players and coaches. A spokesman for the hall said he had no comment on the criticisms.

Mr. Herbert lists Shaquille O’Neal, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Willis Reed and Julius Erving among famous basketball figures who have joined with Mr. Klores in demanding that the hall welcome the greatest black stars of the era.

It’s a vanishing group, and the surviving standouts should be honored while they are still alive.

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