GoDuke Weekly l www.GoDuke.com/gdw
By Al Featherston
Sometimes history can catch you by surprise. That’s what happened when Temple visited
Duke 59 years ago for what turned out to be a land- mark game in the history of North Carolina basket- ball.
The two traditional powers will meet for the
27th time Wednesday night. It’s an important game with both teams ranked in the top 25. But whatever happens in Cameron this week, it won’t have the lasting impact of that Dec. 1, 1951 matchup. The 1951-52 season opener at Duke’s Indoor
Stadium was broadcast nationally over the Liberty radio network and worldwide over the Armed Forces Services Network. Harry Walker, a renowned pho- tographer from Life Magazine, was on hand to docu- ment the much anticipated matchup of the nation’s two top scorer’s from the previous season – Duke’s Dick Groat and Temple’s Bill Mlkvy. But the biggest news that night was provided
by unheralded sophomore Sam Sylvester of the Owls, who became the first African-American to play basketball in Duke’s Indoor Stadium or on any Big Four court. In fact, it’s believed to be the first inte- grated game to be played in the South. “That should be a very famous game,” Mlkvy
Feature of the Week Duke-Temple: Remembering the Landmark Game from 59 Years Ago
said in a recent interview. “I said that night, ‘We just experienced history.’ But people didn’t absorb it. The people that were there realized it. It was a significant experience for me.” It’s necessary to understand the context of the
times to appreciate the importance of Sylvester’s breakthrough and the impact of the response from the Duke community to his groundbreaking appear- ance.
The color line still ruled in most of the South. In
several states, blacks and whites were forbidden by law from competing against one another. Just four years earlier, the Brooklyn Dodgers had been forced to cancel a series of exhibition games in Alabama because local authorities wouldn’t allow an integrat- ed team to perform in public. Just seven years ear- lier, a powerful Duke Med School intramural team had to keep its scrimmage with North Carolina Cen- tral University a deep secret from the authorities. College athletics were still ruled through most
of the 1940s by the so-called “Gentleman’s agree- ment.” Usually, when segregated Southern teams played integrated teams from the North or Midwest, any African-American players would be held out of action. Duke had already been in the forefront of breaking down that barrier, thanks to football coach Wallace Wade. A teammate of African American
running back Fritz Pollard (the first black to win All- America honors in football) at Brown in the days be- fore World War I, Wade had agreed in 1938 to play against African American Syracuse star Wilmeth Sidat-Sing – in defiance of the Gentlemen’s Agree- ment.
Wade’s stance opened the door for other North
Carolina colleges to play against integrated teams – on the road. And in his last year on the Duke side- lines, Wade helped break the color line on campus when he took on an integrated Pitt team in the sta- dium that would later be named for him. But basketball was another matter. Playing
against integrated teams – even on the road – re- mained a controversial stance. A decade after the 1951 Duke-Temple game, SEC champion Missis- sippi State turned down an NCAA Tournament bid because it would have meant playing integrated competition. When the Bulldogs won another bid in 1963, Coach Babe McCarthy accepted the invitation – and had to sneak his team out of town in the dead of night to avoid a court order forbidding the trip. Bill Russell recounts in his autobiography that his integrated San Francisco team was harassed and threatened when they played Loyola in New Orleans in December of 1955. Russell also claims that he was part of the first integrated team to play in the South, which he wasn’t – Sylvester had broken that barrier at Duke four years earlier. Understandably, Sylvester and his Temple
teammates didn’t know what to expect as they traveled to Durham on the last day of November in 1951.
Mlkvy was the team’s star. Famed as “The
Owl without a vowel”, the lanky junior big man had earned first-team All-America honors as a junior, when he averaged a nation-leading 29.2 points a game. But he wasn’t looking forward to his duel with Duke’s Groat, a second-team All-American in 1951 who had led the nation with 831 points scored (a 25.2 ppg. average). “We went down there for the game and I knew
I was going to have a bad year,” Mlkvy said. “I had such an extraordinary junior year … but it was like running a record marathon, then coming back six months later and trying to run another. I knew I could never achieve close to what I had the year before. I had new players around me, plus I was in dental school and I had a very heavy academic load.” One of the new players around Mlkvy was
Sylvester, a muscular 6-foot-2 sophomore from Philadelphia’s Southern High School. Yet, there was absolutely no mention of Sylvester or the fact that Temple featured an African-American player on its roster in any pregame coverage of the event.
“I don’t know, but I suspect they didn’t want to
incite anybody,” Mlkvy said of the press blackout. “It was better to keep everything low key. I lived during that time and if they had made a big story about it before the game, who knows what would have hap- pened? There might have been riots in the streets of Durham. This was 1951 – long before Dr. King marched … I guess the thinking was ‘Let’s low key this thing.’”
However, the news spread across the Duke
campus on the afternoon of Nov. 31, when the Tem- ple team tried to check into the Washington Duke Hotel in downtown Durham. “I remember that like it was yesterday,” Richard
Crowder, who would start at center for the Blue Dev- ils that season, said. “The thing I remember most is what happened with the student body before the game.
“When Temple arrived, they went to the Wash-
ington Duke Hotel [note: no relation to the current Washington Duke Hotel on campus] downtown and all the players lined up for their rooms. But the guy at the desk told them that it was a segregated hotel and they couldn’t accept an African-American. “They were really upset. They were from Phila-
delphia and were a little more advanced in those matters. They couldn’t find a hotel in Durham that would take him. They had to find an African Ameri- can family in Durham to take care of him that night.” Mlkvy also has a stark memory of that mo-
ment. Read the full article on GoDuke.com
GoDuke Weekly The official online magazine of Duke Athletics
Managing Editors Contributors
Jon Jackson Matt Plizga
Ben Blevins, Lindy Brown Art Chase, Chris Cook,
Ned McGraw, Kristina Morrison Meredith Rieder, Ashley Wolf
Staff Writers A.J. Carr
Al Featherston Barry Jacobs Jim Sumner
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