It happened during World War II. But it isn't a war story.
It's about a basketball game. But it's not a sports story.
It involved medical students. But it's not a medical story.
It was 1944.
The Duke University Blue Devils had won the Southern Conference basketball championship. Surprisingly, though, the official university team wasn't even the best one on campus.
The military had set up wartime training programs at Duke, and brought in young men from all over the country. Many were good college players in their own right, but their schools had closed down athletic programs due to the war. So when they came to Duke they formed intramural teams.
The medical school team was considered, by far, the best (possibly the last time in human history that will be said). The players had all been stars at their previous schools. Although they never played each other, it was generally thought that the medical school team was better than the Blue Devils themselves.
It had also been a good year for another local basketball team, the Eagles of the North Carolina College for Negroes. Their coach ran an aggressive high-speed game, and they'd only lost once all season. But that was how it ended. Neither of the basketball tournaments (NCAA and NIT) allowed black colleges to participate.
The details on how it started are lost to history, but somewhere, somehow, the idea came to have the invincible Duke medical students meet the NCCN team on the basketball court.
In 1944 North Carolina this was unthinkable. It was actually a crime, and color lines were enforced. A few months earlier a black American soldier had been killed by a white bus driver for not moving to the back of a city bus fast enough (the driver was found not guilty).
Coach John McLendon of the Eagles liked the idea, and contacted his counterpart at the medical school. The white team was shocked. Such a thing was unheard of, illegal, and seemed to be just asking for trouble. But eventually their pride won, and they agreed to the game. As medical student player David Hubbell said, "We thought we could whup 'em."
The game would have to be played at the NCCN gym, because there was no way to get black students onto the Duke campus without drawing attention. They'd have a referee, but no spectators would be allowed. They'd play on a Sunday morning, when most of the town (and hopefully police) would be in bed or church. The doors to the gym would be locked as soon as all the players were inside, to keep anyone from seeing what was happening. Neither school administration was aware.
The medical students drove to NCCN with a winding route, to keep from being followed. They wore hats, and had their jackets pulled up partly over their heads to keep their skin color hidden.
Inside, the Eagles were very nervous. Aubrey Stanley (who was 16 years old at the time) later said "I had never played against a white person before, and I was a little shaky."
The game got off to a nervous start, with both sides making mistakes and missing easy shots. But they soon got into their routine. Duke went to their strong half-court game, and the Eagles played their speed attack. Stanley recalled "About midway through the first half, I suddenly realized, 'Hey we can beat these guys. They aren't supermen, they're just like us.' "
The second half was a blow-out, with the Eagles scoring almost every time they had the ball. Duke wasn't accustomed to their aggressive, high-speed, full-court game, the likes of which wouldn't be seen in the NBA for another 20-30 years.
The final score was NCCN 88, Duke Medical 44. Not even close.
And then, after the 2 teams had rested, the unthinkable happened: They played again, this time a mixed game, shirts vs. skins. Black and white on the same teams. A serious violation of state law.
A few NCCN students walking by the gym heard noise inside, looked in the windows, and saw this unthinkable match-up. Nobody called the police. It was amazing to watch.
Neither game ever happened by official records. There was no scorecard. Only the player's memories.
Jack Burgess was a Duke player. He was from Montana, and a few days after the game wrote to his family "we played basketball against a Negro college team... and we sure had fun and I especially had a good time, for most of the fellows playing with me were Southerners. When the evening was over, most of them had changed their views quite a lot."
In being able to tell this remarkable story, I (and all of us) owe a great deal of thanks to writer Scott Ellsworth. Without his determined research in chasing it down, it would have been lost to history.