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In black and white, segregation was soundly defeated on the court

Published Sep. 17, 2005

After a while, young David Hubbell realized he was in the black section of town. Hubbell, son of a Duke University professor, was a product of the homogenous white neighborhoods of Durham, N.C.

Until this day, Sunday, March 5, 1944, Hubbell hardly had given a thought to the social condition of black people. Now he was about to help break the rigid, unforgiving segregation laws of Durham.

The team cars pulled up in front of the gym at North Carolina College for Negroes. Jack Burgess, guard on Duke Navy Medical, a wartime team of medical students based at the university, told them whom they were going to play.

"It didn't seem like any earth-shaking event," says Hubbell, a St. Petersburg chest surgeon who teaches his specialty at the University of South Florida. "We'd go out weekends and play whoever we'd managed to schedule."

Hubbell and others on both teams told their stories to Scott Ellsworth, a Smithsonian researcher who published his account in the New York Times on March 31, 1966. This week, Hubbell enlarged on the story.

"We were out-of-shape guys who played weekend basketball. We had no coach, we didn't practice; we just had fun."

All these budding doctors were white, and all had played varsity basketball as undergraduates. Hubbell was starting forward on conference-winning teams at Duke in the early '40s. Burgess played for Montana University and was the only one who was strongly against segregation. Once he complained so heartily about seating arrangements on a public bus that the driver pulled a knife on him.

"When we pulled up at the gym, we got quiet. We were beginning to realize what we were doing.

"Nobody refused to play, nobody complained." Sitting in his Snell Isle home, Hubbell smiles as he thinks back 52 years. "We just said, "We're here. Let's play some basketball.' "

No cheers met the Duke players as they took the floor. There was no one to do the cheering. The home team's coach, John B. McLendon Jr., had kept the game a secret, as well he might, for it was against the law. McLendon could have been fired, perhaps jailed if the news got out.

He didn't even tell his bosses, though years later some students believed the president of the college only pretended ignorance of the game. At any rate, a few dozen students got wind of it and stood on rocks outside the windows, peering in.

The two Durham dailies did not cover the game. A reporter from the local black weekly knew about it but agreed not to write the story.

The game began sloppily, with many missed shots. A Duke player threw a pass directly into an opponent's hands. "You must be colorblind!" a Duke teammate shouted. There was uneasy laughter.

Soon the Eagles, as the home team was called, got the game under control. They were one of the best teams in the country, with a 24-1 record. McLendon had taught them fastbreak plays that would be in general fashion 20 years later.

The Eagles won 88-44. "A good, clean game," Hubbell recalls. The flaunting of Jim Crow grew bolder. The teams split up and merged, playing a full game with blacks and whites as teammates.

Afterward the white players changed and showered in one of the black dorms. "Their rooms were cleaner and neater than ours," Hubbell says.

"They had matrons on every floor and had to walk from their rooms to the bathroom wearing bathrobes. At Duke we wore whatever we wanted, or nothing. Sometimes I wished we had matrons, too."

Hubbell looks back at the game fondly. "The changes were beginning. Something had been exposed behind the barricades of the Jim Crow laws. It was a reservoir of good will."