How a group of dreamers, schemers, and other North Carolinians gave birth to modern basketball
by Scott Ellsworth
North Carolinians possess an embarrassment of basketball riches.
We are a land that can lay claim to Dean Smith and Jim Valvano, David Thompson and Michael Jordan, Kay Yow and Big House Gaines, the Four Corners and the Cameron Crazies. The greatest college basketball game ever played was won – sorry Kentucky – by a team from Duke, coached by a fellow who is now the winningest coach in Division I men’s college basketball. During the past twenty-five years, more Final Fours have been won by teams from North Carolina than any other state, while hotshot high school players around the world go to sleep dreaming of playing on Tobacco Road.
But the Tar Heel State’s greatest contribution to basketball is one that is largely unheralded. While it is true that basketball was invented in New England, and that the game was nurtured on dusty Indiana barnyards and asphalt New York City schoolyards, something equally momentous happened here. For it was in North Carolina that the modern game of basketball was truly born. It was here that the potent mix of dazzling up-tempo play, spacious field houses, and red-hot regional rivalries first came together on the state’s college basketball courts. Years before anyone had ever heard of March Madness, we were already seasoned veterans.
In truth, North Carolina hadn’t always been basketball country.
Even though a future North Carolinian played in the first basketball game ever, at Springfield College in Massachusetts in 1891, it took years for the college game to grow roots in Tar Heel soil. Duke did not field a team until 1905, North Carolina 1910, and N.C. State 1914. By the 1920s, the Tar Heels had emerged as the dominant force in basketball statewide. Yet despite the prowess of the Tar Heels, basketball still played second fiddle to football in Chapel Hill, as it did throughout the state.
That would begin to change one winter afternoon in 1933.
A few years earlier, Duke had hired a handsome Pennsylvanian named Eddie Cameron to help coach the freshman football team. Along the way, he was also given the job of coaching the Blue Devil basketball team. Cameron proved to be a talented, resourceful coach. Not only had he stemmed the tide of losses against the Tar Heels, but on January 31, 1933, Duke hosted UNC in what proved to be one of the most pivotal games in basketball history.
The score of the game wasn’t particularly important. Duke won, 36 to 32.
What was important was the crowd. The fans were everywhere. Even though the Duke gymnasium was less than three years old and was, with seating for three thousand, one of the largest basketball facilities in Dixie, it wasn’t even close to being large enough. Tar Heel and Blue Devil supporters came in droves, filling every seat, blocking every aisle, and were massed, by the hundreds, beneath each goal. Some climbed up onto the slender balcony that ringed the court, their feet dangling below them, while others stood on windowsills, waving banners, chewing tobacco, and screaming their lungs out. Before the fire marshal was alerted, it was estimated that more than five thousand spectators had crammed themselves into the Duke gym. College basketball had caught fire in North Carolina.
The game also got Eddie Cameron –and his boss, head football coach Wallace Wade – to thinking. Two years later, they approached the university administration with a proposal. What Duke needed, they said, was a new basketball facility, one that would keep up with what surely would be the continued growth in popularity of basketball. This one, they said, should seat at least eight thousand. Horace Trumbauer, the campus architect, was aghast. “For your information,” Trumbauer sniffed, “Yale has in its new gymnasium a basketball court with settings for 1600. I think the settings for 8,000 people is rather liberal.”
But the two Duke coaches were adamant, and they got their way. No mere field house, the mammoth new structure was so large that it was called the Duke Indoor Stadium. With seats for 8,800, it was the largest basketball facility in the South. Wade and Cameron had found a path to the future.
They weren’t, however, the only ones to do so.
For right across town, in a shoebox-sized gymnasium on the other side of Durham, a second basketball revolution was being launched.
On the surface, John McLendon didn’t look like a basketball coach.
Small in stature, as a player he hadn’t made either his junior high or high school teams, much less played college ball. And as the new basketball coach at the then tiny North Carolina College for Negroes – now North Carolina Central University – he wasn’t going to attract much attention from sportswriters, especially as an African American coach in the still-segregated South.
In truth, however, McLendon had an unmatched basketball coaching pedigree. Not only had he been born and raised in hoops-crazy Kansas, but as an undergraduate at the University of Kansas, he had been the last student of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball. Moreover, McLendon had also literally sat at the feet of Phog Allen, and had carefully studied the legendary Jayhawk coach’s highly successful coaching methods.
What was even more impressive was how McLendon took what he had learned from Naismith and Allen and used them to create a revolutionary new style of basketball, one that featured a revved-up fast-break, full-court-pressure defense, and a conditioning program that was decades ahead of its time. The old, slow, two-handed set shot kind of basketball had no place in McLendon’s new version.
During an era when most college basketball teams scored perhaps forty or maybe fifty points per game, McLendon’s North Carolina College Eagles scored seventy, eighty, ninety. The Eagles beat St. Augustine’s 119-34. “Coach,” one winded opposing player was heard to complain, “they’re getting faster!” During the 1943-44 season, the Eagles were the highest scoring college basketball team in the country. Working alone in a tiny gym at a small school that few North Carolinians, not to mention most Americans, had ever heard of, John McLendon was a basketball genius who had found the doorway to the modern, fluid, fast-paced game.
Along the way, however, he broke another barrier, as well.
In March 1944, McLendon’s team played a clandestine, racially integrated game against a team of former college basketball players who were now medical students at Duke. Held in the North Carolina College gymnasium on a Sunday morning, with a referee and a scorer but no invited spectators, the Secret Game was a dangerous – and gutsy – violation of Southern segregation, as well as a true civil rights milestone. But it was also something else. Three years before Jackie Robinson desegregated Major League baseball, white and black basketball players were mixing it up in North Carolina. On a quiet Sunday morning, McLendon had seen basketball’s future firsthand.
When World War II ended, the final elements of North Carolina’s basketball revolution were set in motion. N.C. State struck first, in 1946, hiring an Indiana high school coach named Everett Case to improve the quality of Wolfpack basketball. Instead they got a human dynamo. Not only did his teams rack up winning season after winning season, but Case brought an infectious enthusiasm for basketball that was unparalleled. He cooked up the idea for the highly popular Dixie Classic basketball tournament, and it was his teams that introduced North Carolinians to cutting down the nets after a tournament victory. Three years after Case arrived in Raleigh, N.C. State suddenly had a massive new basketball facility, Reynolds Coliseum, with a seating capacity – 12,400 –that was bigger than the Indoor Stadium at Duke. The fans, many of them ex-servicemen, poured in.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, had seen enough.
In 1952, they lured a fast-talking New Yorker named Frank McGuire, then the coach at St. John’s, to Chapel Hill. Frontloading his roster with talented city boys, McGuire soon proved to be both a worthy competitor for Case – and a perfect foil for his showmanship. “Don’t shake hands when we meet before the game,” Case once told McGuire. “Make the fans think that we hate each other.” The fans loved it. Five years after coming to Chapel Hill, McGuire’s team won the 1957 NCAA championship – the first ever won by an in-state team – defeating a Kansas team led by Wilt Chamberlain in triple overtime. North Carolina basketball had arrived.
There would, of course, be one other issue to solve.
McGuire’s 1957 Tar Heels, like every other team in the new Atlantic Coast Conference, was all-white. It would take the arrival of the Civil Rights movement to change that, beginning first with Bill Jones at Maryland in 1965. C. B. Claiborne came to Duke a year later. But it would be the brilliant Charlie Scott, playing for UNC, who would finally drive the nail into the coffin of segregated basketball in North Carolina.
Three years after Scott pulled on a Tar Heel uniform for the last time, on Super Bowl Sunday 1973, Americans across the country were treated to something that few had ever seen before – a nationally televised A.C.C. basketball game. The game, between N.C State and Maryland, was a barn burner that the Wolfpack took on a game-winning shot by David Thompson. But what amazed the more than thirty million viewers all over the country was the quality and passion of the fast-breaking, full-court-pressure-defense, high-flying kind of college basketball, played by black and white players together, in front of a packed, frenzied audience. This was a whole new kind of college basketball experience. Deeply impressed, viewers from California to Connecticut wondered if they might capture some of this magic where they lived. They also wondered where all of this had come from.
John McLendon, Eddie Cameron, Everett Case, and Frank McGuire could have told them. So could all of those fans standing on windowsills for the Duke-Carolina game back in 1933.
We’d seen it before.
Now it would be America’s turn.
Scott Ellsworth is the author of The Secret Game: A Wartime Story of Courage, Change, and Basketball’s Lost Triumph. He says he caught “the ACC disease” as a graduate student at Duke in the 1970s.
The Secret Game (Little, Brown & Co.; $27) tells the tale of North Carolina’s long-buried athletic secret: a racially integrated college basketball game during World War II. The book also tells a larger story of the South, and the nation itself, on the verge of monumental change.
Ellsworth will talking about the book and signing copies at 7 p.m. Nov. 12 at Barnes & Noble, 760 SE Maynard Rd., Cary, and at 7 p.m. Nov. 14 at the Regulator Bookshop, 720 9th St., Durham.