Like the NCAA men’s champs, Ellsworth has exceeded expectations. The book that he spent nearly twenty years researching and writing–while also being a stay-at-home dad to twin boys, and later, battling cancer–just landed a film deal with Legendary Pictures, makers of Straight Outta Compton, Jurassic World, and The Dark Knight Rises.

“It’s terrific,” said Ellsworth. Legendary–which also produced the Jackie Robinson biopic 42–“seems like a really good fit. I’m thrilled it’s with them.”

The Secret Game takes a deep dive into basketball’s history and evolution in America, all in order to set the stage for the previously unknown tale of the first racially integrated game to be played in the South, in 1944, between an undefeated, all-black team from the North Carolina College for Negroes and a talented, all-white team of military medical students at Duke University.

It wasn’t the book Ellsworth initially set out to write. Two decades ago–after he’d already earned a PhD in history from Duke and published a book (Death in a Promised Land: The Tulsa Race Riot of 1921), he was working as a historian at the Smithsonian Institution. There he spent a couple of years researching the 1957 Final Four: a moment when television, money, and the civil rights movement intersected in interesting ways.

But a chance encounter at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, with former NCCN coach John McLendon changed everything.

McLendon mentioned that he’d been a protege of basketball’s inventor, James Naismith, while studying at the University of Kansas. That got Ellsworth thinking that McLendon–a Hall of Famer himself–would be a great subject for a profile. So the historian flew to Cleveland to interview the former coach.

While sitting in McLendon’s office, Ellsworth read through the coach’s long list of “racial firsts” in basketball, which included being the first black coach to work in a professional basketball league, the first black basketball coach at the Olympics, and the first black coach to win an integrated college basketball championship.

Then Ellsworth read what he assumed was a typo: McLendon coached the first integrated game in the South in 1944. “I said, ‘Hey, Coach. You mean ’54, not ’44, right?'” recalls Ellsworth. “And he said, ‘No. It was 1944.'”

With that, Ellsworth had found a new obsession–a story that not only plumbed the history of a sport but concurrently told the story of race in America in the twentieth century. Ellsworth’s investigation spawned a 1996 New York Times Magazine article, as well as a segment on Ted Koppel’s Nightline, but the story wouldn’t let Ellsworth go until he took it further.

He was still researching when the family moved to Ann Arbor ten years ago, after Betsy Ellsworth was hired as admissions director at Greenhills School. “The Hatcher Library was invaluable,” Scott says, adding that “… I don’t know of a better university library in this country for a nonfiction writer to use.” He used it well. The book reads like a narrative packed with vivid characters. Seven publishers wanted it, and it won the ESPN/PEN Award for Literary Sports Writing.

Neither the award nor the film deal helped when Ellsworth filled out his March Madness bracket. He confesses that he picked Kansas (which fell to Villanova in the Final Four) to beat Michigan State (defeated by Middle Tennessee State in a first-round shocker) in the championship game.