Lynn: Longtime readers know Cindy and I are both huge college basketball fans, so of course I pivoted on my way past the recent-arrivals bookshelf, swiveled, and leaped for Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game (2015). SCORE!
When I sat down to read it, I realized I had a winner. This is a great story and it is executed with style. But my face matches Cindy’s favorite team’s practice jerseys when I wonder how I could have been unaware of this historic matchup. John Coy tells the true story of two basketball teams, Duke, with all white players, and the all-black Eagles from the North Carolina College of Negroes. It was 1944, segregation was the law, and black and white players were prohibited from playing each other.
The young coach of the Eagles thought the law was wrong, believing that basketball could help change people’s prejudices. A secret game was set up with great care. The Duke team even hid their faces when they walked into the empty gymnasium. When the game began, the players on both sides were tentative and nervous. But the Eagles’ playing style was revolutionary and, before long, they had beaten Duke boys badly. Instead of being mad, the Duke players recognized something special and they immediately started a second game, this time with mixed players, black and white on both teams, shirts and skins. The love of the sport had indeed done something special and the two teams forgot color for the moment and instead just saw fellow players.
John McLendon was something special too, going on to a stellar career that included being the first coach to win three consecutive national titles (1957–59) while he coached at Tennessee State. Coy’s dynamic text that has all the energy of a fast break and Randy DuBurke’s illustrations are all net, all the way. This book is AWESOME, baby!
Cindy: I don’t think we need to feel bad for not knowing about this hush-hush game—after all, a reporter who heard what happened wasn’t even allowed to write about it, in order to spare those involved the wrath of the still-active KKK. According to the 1996 NY Times Magazine article listed in the book’s selected bibliography, “No scorecard exists, and as far as official basketball recordkeeping is concerned, the game never took place.”
The opening page lists Coach John McLendon’s four questions for his players:
Who are you?
What are you?
Why are you here on this earth?
Where are you going?
These are interesting questions for student athletes to ponder, and even more so after reading this story. A brief timeline, selected bibliography and author’s note are helpful. Coy is the author of the popular 4 for 4 middle-grade sports fiction series. Next week I’m beginning a seventh-grade research and multimedia project using nonfiction and biography picture books as the starting point for the research. You can be sure that Game Changer will be center court!
Was Lynn mocking my Indiana Hoosiers with her comments above? She’s just jealous that my guys are leading the Big Ten conference right now . . . .