Obviously Kansas University is well-known for its rich coaching heritage – the fortunate few who have actually coached the Jayhawks, as well as those who played & learned at KU and then continued their success elsewhere. From the Father of Basketball to the Father of Basketball Coaching to the numerous Hall of Famers and Soon-To-Be-Hall of Famers, the names Naismith, Allen, Rupp, Lonborg, Bunn, Miller, Smith, Brown, Williams and Self (among others) resonate like no other basketball program. Yet despite his accolades and Hall of Fame credentials, one name – John McLendon – always seemed a bit more distant & unfamiliar to the fans of the Crimson & Blue.
That’s one of the things that made Scott Ellsworth’s book, The Secret Game, such an enjoyable read. During a time of heated racial segregation when players from both teams risked their safety as well as could have been jailed, the North Carolina College for Negroes took on Duke in a, well, secret game, and simply walloped Duke by a score of 88-44. Okay, not the “real” Duke basketball team, but the Duke School of Medicine intramural team, which was packed with star athletes and former college players who were pursuing medicine during WWII. Since it was regarded as the superior Duke team and was at, well, Duke, the NCCN drubbing counts as something to smile about.
But I digress…
The different perspectives from several of the participants and their experiences leading up to the game is incredibly fascinating, with Durham’s & the South’s Jim Crow laws providing a dramatic backdrop to what the author states as being the first interracial basketball game. With the current tragedy in Charleston still only a couple of days’ old, the racist attitudes of 1944 that are described not only show how far things have come, but unfortunately how far they still need to go.
John McLendon was the head coach at NCCN and the architect behind the team’s incredible success. What should be particularly interesting to KU fans are the early chapters that focus on McLendon’s time in Lawrence: the budding foundation of his basketball knowledge being established by religiously watching Phog Allen’s practices (since African-Americans weren’t allowed to play for the University of Kansas at the time), as well as his deep relationship with none other than James Naismith. McLendon’s basketball legacy is highlighted in book, but more importantly, so are his class and dignity. Although the racism that existed in Lawrence (and the nation) at the time is obviously disappointing to read about, McLendon’s strength and poise are showcased in the face of the ugliest of adversities.
The emotional core of the book takes place shortly after the secret game is over, beginning with the line “No one expected what happened after that.” The two teams played again, but mixed their players together. McLendon, who had gone into his office to tally the original game’s player statistics, emerged amazed at what was occurring. More than just a game of shirts and skins, McLendon saw both a blending of colors and a blending of basketball styles forged by their experiences. “It was all coming together, adding up to nothing less than the future of basketball.”
John McLendon was enshrined in the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1979 for his accomplishments including being the first coach to win three consecutive national titles and innovating the press & the fast break, but his more significant contribution was being a pioneer for racial equality when he became the first African-American basketball coach at a predominantly white university and the first African-American head coach in any professional sport.
It all started with a secret game, with McLendon’s roots stemming from the University of Kansas. And all Jayhawks should be proud.