Saturday, March 12, 2011

March 12, 1944




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.

28 comments:

Anonymous said...

thank you for posting this wonderful story.

rnraquel said...

This is great. I lived in North Carolina for 11 years and never heard this story.

Lisa said...

Wonderful story. Thanks!

Kat's Kats said...

This is wonderful!! I remember moving from living on or near Naval bases. I was born in 1961 and my late father was in the Navy. His best friend when I was 3 was black and I never thought a thing about it. When I was 8 ('69) my parents separated and my mom & I moved back to Nashville, TN where I had been born.

I walked to school. Busing had not yet hit Nashville but there was one black girl in my class. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a doctor. Of course, I immediately introduced myself and talked to her. My other classmates were shocked and told me I couldn't talk to her because she was black.

I had no idea what they were talking about. I pointed out that my skin color was a light peach and her's was more of a chocolate color. Of course, that didn't deter them at all. When I got home my grandfather explained prejudice to me. He pointed out that they were only repeating what they had been taught, that everyone was descended from Adam and Eve and expressed his hope that one day everyone would realize that.

It still made no sense to me and never had. I follow his thoughts on the matter.

The only prejudice I have is against prejudice.
-Elbert Fay Anderson

Sara said...

The 12th paragraph, the doors would have to be LOCKED, not LOOKED.

Sorry, the school teacher training in me.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

Oops! I fixed it.

Anonymous said...

We just moved to Chapel Hill, NC from Maine and the passion for basketball here is tremendous! This is a great story!

jimbo26 said...

Thanks for a good story . Jim ( UK )

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the story!
-A current DukeMed student

Government Funded Blogger said...

Thanks very much for that uplifting story.I sure do enjoy your posts.

Anonymous said...

thank you, grumpy. the world can get better. we just have to keep trying.

donna said...

Thank you Mr Ellsworth and your Dr Grumpy! This is a wonderful story!

Gloria P said...

That's a terrific story. Thank you.

Gizabeth Shyder said...

Long time reader and first time commenter.

While I find your short blurbs entertaining, I love your long ones best. The history accounts and the comical take on being a parent of a boy scout in this decade. Keep it coming.

These are the stories that stick with me.

bogart said...

Thanks for writing about this. The world's changed a lot (not enough, maybe, but a lot) in 50 (and 70) years, something I think we too easily forget.

Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing ... we need to know the world is not totally run by idiots.

Anonymous said...

Am I allowed to say I'm proud to be shocked about the segregation? I'm born in '92, long after that ever was practiced and it never made a big impression on me in school, but this is an amazing story!
Today this is hardly unthinkable, but this story took place not that long ago, if you look at it in the long run. I'm glad things can change so dramatically for the good in under a century.

Anna said...

Thank you for this. Amazing story - off to share it with my students.

Grumpy, M.D. said...

To read Mr. Ellsworth's original article, which is much more detailed, click here.

Kathy G said...

What a fascinating story!

medical scrubs said...

i am delighted to read this story ..wonderful !

terri c said...

What a good story. Thanks to you and Mr Ellsworth!

Close to home said...

Thank you so much for posting this story. My late grandfather was the athletic director at this school, and reading this story made me look up when he held that position. He was not director at the time, but my uncle's basketball coach was. My uncle went on to become the first black man to sign an NBA contract, and you can find his Eagles jersey for sale online. (It is clear that I'm rather proud of my family, no?)

sconesail said...

Great story! Thanks for sharing this interesting bit of history which proves that "where there is a will, there is a way," especially among college students.

Anonymous said...

I think that this story should be made into a movie.

Sheila said...

I've spent the past half hour writing a small novel in this comment area trying to respond. I decided to just say thank you. This is one of my absolute most favorite posts of yours. I've re-read this over and over again, and each time I want to cry with tears of anger and tears of joy!

Lynda Halliger-Otvos said...

Wonderful story, Doc, thanks for sharing it with us. I love stories that reinforce that we are all humans and we can be together in fellowship without rancor and ugliness. May each step we take lead the way to Peace.

wv = cried--how apropo

Anonymous said...

I truly appreciate this post:0))

 
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