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25th Feb, 2009

The Secret Game, Barack Obama and John McLendon

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One name is this title is probably a mystery to most people other than genuine basketball fans, yet during Black History Month and the month of President’s Day, that name helps explain Barack Obama.

Few people know about John McLendon, which is a shame, because he deserves mention in the same breath with his mentor James Naismith, the founder of basketball, and legendary UCLA Coach John Wooden. John McLendon’s story aired as part of an extraordinary ESPN documentary, Black Magic, which appeared last year.

Black Magic tells the story of basketball at America’s historically Black Colleges and Universities, but it is a story about more than hoops, it is a story about equity and justice. The documentary’s opening reminds us of the way it was, for it tells the story of the game that never was, a 1944 secret contest between McLendon’s African American team and a team from Duke University. This was the same year a black soldier (remember this is during World War II) was killed because he did not move to the back of the bus fast enough to satisfy the white driver. No charges were filed.

So the idea of blacks and whites playing together was not only unprecedented but dangerous. The game grew out of a challenge between whites and African Americans durng one of the secret YMCA prayer meetings they had started holding in Durham. When one of the white players brought the challenge back to the rest of his team, some were understandably reluctant to play, but finally one of them said:

We thought we could whup ‘em. So we decided to find out.

The Duke team that played was not the regular varsity team that had won the Southern Conference Championship, but an even better intramural team consisting of former college players who were on campus training for the war. If you think this is unprecedented, when I was a student at the University of Minnesota the top intramural team was a group of black athletes named the Soulful Strutters, whose star player was none other than Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Winfield. The Strutters dominated IMs playing a style that dates back to John McLendon, so an informal game was arranged with the University varsity. Let’s just say the Strutters held their own and not long after that game Dave Winfield was playing varsity.

According to some stories about that 1944 secret game, a few of the white players were not sure what was going on.  Dave Hubbell remembers:

The fellow who set up the game wouldn’t tell us where we were going. We just knew we had a game.

Hubbell had to have known something was up when they went careening down back alleys and gravel roads with a strong wind blowing across their path.  It was eleven in the morning; a time purposely chosen because most of Durham would be in church–including most of the police force, so the car was less likely to be followed or even noticed when it entered the African American part of town. When the cars stopped, the players found themselves on an unfamiliar college campus where the rare sight of an automobile had people staring out of open windows. Those staring faces were all black, for the car had parked on the main campus of what was then named the North Carolina College for Negroes.

At this point, it was a question of who was more surprised the NCC students or the white players who had just exited the car. Jack Burgess recalls:

We lifted up the bottoms of our jackets and pulled them over our heads.

Since it was Burgess who had helped to arrange the game, the gesture must have been to keep the game secret. Burgess had played college ball in Montana where he even had an African American roommate, so when he arrived in Durham he was openly shocked by Jim Crow.

I was rather outspoken about it and I was taken aside by one or two of my classmates and very politely told that, look Jack, this is the way we do it down here, we’ve been doing it this way for years. Don’t rock the boat.

But rocking the boat is exactly what Burgess intended to do. Once when he made a remark about segregated bus seating, someone chased him from the bus with a knife.  Burgess also had a hand in those clandestine Y meetings which sparked the game.  Exactly who on the white side agreed to the game is still an open question, but Burgess is an obvious choice.

The main motivator for the game and the man who made the arrangements was John McLendon. Born in Kansas, McLendon had attended Kansas University at the time James Naismith was coaching there.  Unable to play on the team because of segregation, McLendon walked in Naismith’s door and announced that the coach was going to be his advisor. To Naismith’s credit he agreed. McLendon also took courses from KU legend Phog Allen, for whom Allen Fieldhouse–the longtime home of KU basketball–is named.

Yet as the Black Fives website points out, Naismith never acknowledged McLendon or African American basketball in his seminal book, Basketball: Its Origins and Development. An article in a Kansas City paper featured a picture of him signing autographs there as part of a legends game shortly before he died.

What McLendon would take from Naismith is a belief that basketball was made to be played at a fast pace that was complemented by an in-your-face defense, from which McLendon created one of basketball’s most sophisticated and innovative styles.  McLendon was only 28 the year of that game, but already his innovations were turning heads as he coached NCC to a 19-1 record in 1944.

What McLendon was really itching for was to prove his players, his team and his coaching style could beat any white team in the country.  Although there is no evidence of it, it would not surprise me to find that McLendon had planted the idea of the challenge with one of his students. Certainly he had planted the idea with his team that they could play with anyone and deserved a chance to do so.

At that time the jump shot was not even in existence nor were contests for three point-shooting and dunks. The white game often featured players standing around passing the ball until someone was open enough to shoot a set shot. The scores from the 1944 NCAA tournament averaged 46 points per game with the Utah beating Dartmouth 42-40 in the championship game.

If you know anything about hoops you can tell a great deal about McLendon’s style and his coaching just from the still picture taken of the 1944 team.  Notice particularly the second player from the left. His stance could be that of any of today’s NBA players; it is close to the floor and perfectly balanced–the classic basketball stance built for speed and ball handling. The cross-over didn’t exist then, either, but that player is set to pull one off.

Compare this with the player on his right, who is more upright with his butt sticking out and just waiting to be picked. That’s the way most white teams played at the time because theirs was a passing and set-shooting game not the ball-handling, motion game McLendon pioneered.

McLendon had the white players enter through the door to the women’s locker room. When they uncovered their heads and walked on the court, McLendon’s players were equally surprised.

Edward “Pee Wee” Boyd, who was team manager, stated:

Coach Mac brought them in through the women’s dressing room side of the gym. When we saw these white faces being uncovered, nobody said anything.

Many of the African American players had never seen a white face, according to an article about the game in the Duke Medical School Journal. Others were worried about what might happen. Aubrey Stanley told the New York Times:

I had never played basketball against a white person before, and I was a little shaky. You did not know what might happen if there was a hard foul, or if a fight broke out. I kept looking over at Big Dog and Boogie to see what to do. They were both from up North.

Henry (Big Dog) Thomas and James (Boogie-Woogie) Hardy along with Floyd (Cootie) Brown were the heart of McLendon’s team along with Stanley.  Note the nicknames which look towards the future of basketball and not the past, where nicknames are a common way to describe a player’s style or heart or physical qualities.

McLendon had insured that the doors were bolted and the windows locked so no one could get into the game. Before the tip-off only one other person in Durham knew about what was to take place–a local reporter who courageously maintained silence. In order that the game be as close to a real contest as possible, he also hired a referee and time-keeper.

Players on both sides remember the first few minutes were awkward and error-filled. Boyd recalls:

For the first five minutes, you felt like you were the biggest sinner in the world, in the biggest church in the world. But then we found out that the black wouldn’t rub off and the white wouldn’t rub off.

Boyd’s words speak more truth then maybe even he intended; for once the players regained their equilibrium, each side slipped into the kind of game they knew. As the game continued, word had spread among the NCC students spurred by the unprecedented sight of a carload of white players arriving on campus. Even though the gym was closed, they climbed up to windows to peer in at the remarkable game going on in the gym.

As you can see in Black Magic, the NCC gym was nothing like the palaces like Allen Fieldhouse where big time college ball is played today. The only gym I have seen that is smaller was a gym in an old rural high school that had been closed.  As any coach will tell you, the style of the gym has an impact on the game, so what is even more remarkable about what McLendon accomplished was that he was able to create a fast-break game in a bandbox of a gym. There must have been practices in that tight space when players left practice with their uniforms hanging from them like wet rags and their tongues parched for water.

According to reports, McLendon’s team blew Duke away, leaving the white players shaking their heads at a pace and style they had never seen before.  The Duke players scored close to that NCAA tournament average–44 points. McLendon’s team doubled the score–putting up an amazing 88.  Think about that score for a minute. This was in the days before the shot clock, the three-point shot, the dunk, the jump shot, and a variety of fancy moves that every grade school player tries to emulate.  This was nothing more than brilliant fundamental basketball played at warp speed.

But the day was not over. In an even more brilliant move than scheduling the game itself, McLendon then asked the players to play three-on-three, shirts and skins, whites and blacks mixed together.  ACC player George Parks told the Times:

Just God’s children, horsing around with a basketball.

Commenting on the game years afterward, McLendon would say:

That was the way basketball’s supposed to be.

McLendon would go on to have a Hall of Fame career, becoming the first coach to win a national tournament three times in a row (in those days African American schools played in the NAIA tournament).  He also became the first African American NBA coach.

McLendon’s fast-break style was so radical for its time–and still is today–that it put to shame the slow, deliberate pace of the dominant white basketball coaches.  To those hwo think McLendon’s style sounds like today’s playground style, it was anything but that.

Watching those old films, it appears to be based on fast break lanes and reads, with players breaking down either side of the court and the center.  Where the reads come in first involves how each side broke, where the ball went first after a rebound, and on changing lanes. This demanded perfect timing, quick thinking, an ability to improvise and, above all, teamwork.

Former player Harold Hunter, the first African American to play in the NBA testifies:

McLendon invented a game that was vigorous, lively, at top speed.

In the 1950s when white college teams routinely played games averaging in the 50s, McLendon’s teams scored at a pace almost double that. Black Magic documents not merely how the white majority never gave this style a chance, but also turned it into a parody of itself, a hoops minstrel show with the Harlem Globetrotters as headliners. Former Temple Coach Don Cheney talks about how he couldn’t take playing for Globetrotters because he didn’t know any tricks; he could only shoot and dribble.

Watching Black Magic you cannot help but ask what American basketball would have been like had John McLendon been permitted to bring his style to the entire country?

On the surface the secret game may seem to have little to do with this month’s theme of the stimulus bill, but it has everything to do with it. Last year the last episode of Black Magic aired the night Presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered his critical speech on race. A year later I wrote this as Obama delivered his message to Congress.

Of course, it is well known that Obama loves the game of basketball. No doubt he knows about the accomplishments of John McLendon. He may not have had McLendon on his mind when he delivered his address to Congress, but it exuded the same spirit as McLendon did when he arranged that 1944 game. McLendon had a vision not unlike Dr. King’s of a time when such games be common.

But he also had the faith in himself and that vision to dare what at the time was unthinkable and pull it off. Maybe he hoped that game would be the first of many games like it, but in that he would be disappointed. That neitherf diminishes his vision or what he accomplished.

The major theme running through Obama’s speech as it did through that long-ago game and the life of John McLendon is that anything is possible. That a 28-year-old African American coach at a segregated college brought whites and African Americans together at a time when all who participated in that game could suffered grave consequences speaks volumes about the very theme President Obama evoked tonight.

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