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Review of Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game

coy_game changerGame Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game
by John Coy; illus. by Randy DuBurke
Primary, Intermediate   Carolrhoda   32 pp.
10/15   978-1-4677-2604-7   $17.99
e-book ed. 978-1-4677-8810-6   $17.99

Based closely on a 1996 New York Times article by Scott Ellsworth, this picture book tells the dramatic story of an illegal college basketball game planned and played in secret in Jim Crow–era North Carolina. On a Sunday morning in 1944, while most Durham residents, including the police, were in church, the white members of the Duke University Medical School basketball team (considered “the best in the state”) slipped into the gym at the North Carolina College of Negroes to play the Eagles, a close-to-undefeated black team coached by future Hall of Famer John McClendon. What happened when “basketball of the present” (Duke’s three-man weaves and set shots) met “basketball of the future” (the Eagles’ pressure defense and fast breaks) is suspenseful, dramatic, and telling: the Eagles beat Duke 88–44. Afterward, pushing the boundaries even further, the players evened up the teams for a friendly game of shirts and skins. Coy’s succinct narrative is well paced, compelling, and multilayered, focusing on the remarkable game but also placing it in societal and historical context. DuBurke’s illustrations can be static at times but nicely capture the story’s atmosphere, from the tension of the Duke players’ covert arrival to the basketball action to the post-game geniality and then back to tension (since all parties, including several newspaper reporters, had to pledge to keep the day’s events secret to protect themselves and Coach McClendon). A fascinating story, with appeal far beyond sports- and history fans; appended with an author’s note, a timeline, and a brief bibliography.

From the November/December 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Martha V. Parravano About Martha V. Parravano

Martha V. Parravano is book review editor of The Horn Book, Inc., and co-author of the Calling Caldecott blog.

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