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McFeely: For Bison's opponent, a victory would have deep meaning

The 1944 North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central) basketball team that played an all-white team from Duke University, a violation of segregation laws at the time. The game and its impact is chronicled in author Scott Ellsworth's book, "The Secret Game."

DAYTON, Ohio -- There's a chance those who produce TV for CBS Sports would prefer North Carolina Central beating North Dakota State in the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament. Nothing against the Bison, necessarily, but the storyline that would follow a Central win is almost too juicy to resist.

And it's not for the most obvious of reasons.

Duke, the most powerful college basketball program in the land, awaits the winner of the Bison-Eagles game. While NDSU is located almost 1,500 miles away from the Duke campus in Fargo, North Carolina Central is but a few miles away, just down the road in Durham, N.C. It would be an intracity matchup. That's a good hook.

There's also the fact Central head coach LeVelle Moton and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski are good friends. "Coach K," as he's known, spoke at a Central banquet a few years ago and Moton traveled to Colorado Springs, Colo., in 2016 to watch a U.S. Olympic team workout, when Krzyzewski was coaching Team USA. So even though Moton joked last week that he hoped the NCAA wouldn't set up a possible Central-Duke showdown in the round of 64, he knew the implications of such a game. That's a good story.

"He knows how big this game would be for the city of Durham," said Jonas Pope IV, who covers North Carolina Central for the Raleigh News & Observer newspaper. "These schools are five miles apart. Duke players hang out at Central. I've seen Duke players at Central basketball games."

That right there would be enough for Jim Nantz and Bill Raftery to wax poetic during a Duke-Central game, even if the outcome wouldn't be in doubt from the opening tip. The Eagles, like the Bison, would have no answer for Duke star Zion Williamson and the rest of the NBA-bound Blue Devils roster.

But it's not the most compelling reason why the college basketball establishment and CBS might prefer Central defeat NDSU.

The most compelling reason is history and the great story that would be told if the Blue Devils and Eagles play.

The record books show Duke and North Carolina Central have played only once. It was a regular season game in 2007, Central's first contest as a Division I program, and the Blue Devils won 121-56. Coincidentally, the Eagles lost 104-51 to NDSU eight days later at the Bison Sports Arena.

The record books don't show what is known in North Carolina as The Secret Game. That is a story worth telling, one with which CBS and other national media outlets would smother the public in the run-up to a Duke-North Carolina Central game. And rightly so.

"It was a huge deal," said Scott Ellsworth, a University of Michigan professor who wrote a definitive book titled "The Secret Game."

It was 1944, 10 years before the civil rights movement began to gain traction in the United States, and Jim Crow laws still ruled the segregated South. African-Americans and whites did not mix. North Carolina Central, a historically black public university then known as the North Carolina College for Negroes, and the all-white private Duke did not play sports against each other.

North Carolina College had an outstanding team that season, losing just one game under young coach John McClendon.

"Across town at Duke University, the Blue Devils had won the Southern Conference championship. But they weren't necessarily the best team on campus. The Army and the Navy had established wartime training programs at Duke, and the intramural teams were stuffed with former college athletes," Ellsworth wrote. "The medical school team was perhaps the best. Dick Thistlethwaite, a former star at the University of Richmond, played center. David Hubbell, a forward, had started for the Duke varsity. Homer Sieber had played at Roanoke College, and Dick Symmonds at Central Methodist in Missouri. Jack Burgess, the team's newest member, had played guard at the University of Montana."

While blacks and whites couldn't play basketball against each other in North Carolina in 1944 — Durham's police force actively enforced Jim Crow laws — word of a challenge began to filter between the all-white medical school team from Duke and the all-black Eagles.

The challenge was: Let's play and see who is better.

After initial hesitancy for obvious reasons, the Duke players agreed to a game after coaxing from McClendon and the Eagles. It would be played March 12 in the tiny North Carolina College for Negroes gym, with a referee and an official scorer. The rest of the world, however, couldn't know about it.

Ellsworth chronicled it all in his book, still available on Amazon. After the Duke players sneaked their way through Durham to reach the Eagles' gym, McClendon bolted the building shut and the referee tossed up the ball. The first half was ragged, with players on both sides nervous, and Duke led at halftime. But the black players gained confidence in the second half and began to play the style McClendon taught them — fast-breaks, full-court pressure defense and non-stop motion. It was modern basketball, 30 years ahead of its time.

"The Duke players had never seen anything like it," Ellsworth wrote. "By the end of the game, the scoreboard told the story: Eagles 88, Visitors 44."

After a short break, the players mixed their teams and played a pickup game — black and white players on the same teams, an even more shocking violation of Jim Crow.

The story remained buried from public view for more than 50 years, until Ellsworth stumbled upon it and wrote his book in 1996. The Secret Game remains a point of pride at North Carolina Central.

Which is why the Eagles really want to beat NDSU and get a very public game against Duke on college basketball's biggest stage.

"I think it would be incredible, man," Moton told a North Carolina radio station. "I think it would be sensational for the city of Durham. Not only for our city and our program, but their program because there's a lot of historical parallels between our program and theirs. I don't know if you guys are aware of the Secret Game, but this year marks ... the 75th anniversary. The stars are lining up."

That makes it official: The Bison are playing the spoiler role against Central, trying their best to quash a story CBS would love to tell.