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March 15: Phantoms Haunt Amateur Basketball

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Mid-March brings two things to North Dakota: blizzards and basketball tournaments. Tournament time brings both happiness and heartache, as teams from across the state vie to be crowned champions.

In addition to this high school tradition, amateur basketball also has quite a history. One such example is a team in Bismarck – the Phantoms.

The Phantoms were an independent basketball team, organized in 1927 by Neil Churchill. He was well-known for his involvement with automobile sales and local baseball, including managing the Bismarck Grays, the team known for having legendary pitcher Satchel Paige on its roster in 1933. The Phantoms were initially coached by Churchill, but later the top players on the team took over.

As an integrated team, the Phantoms were important in breaking the color barrier. It was a time when African Americans were not afforded many opportunities to play alongside whites, especially in the South.

In March 1936, Bismarck faced a tough competition to defend its state title in Independent Class A, facing determined squads from Mandan, Fargo, Grand Forks, and Lankin. In addition, Minot, Jamestown, and Devils Lake rounded out the eight-team field.

Like the Bismarck squad, the other teams had interesting names -- the Minot Stags, the Dakota Millers out of Grand Forks, the Devils Lake Shamrocks, the Grafton Soldiers, the Fargo Deep Rock Oilers, and the Mandan Prowlers. The Tribune noted that a number of team members included standout former high school stars and former UND and Mayville State players.

The Phantoms, sometimes referred to as the Capitol City Ghosts, had success later in the 1930s, dominating foes from 1938-1941, including going to the semifinal game in the Amateur National Tournament in the 1938-39 season. In the 1939-40 season, they bested the vaunted Harlem Globetrotters 70-30 and appeared in the national tournament again, as well as making the tournament in the 1940-41 season. The team folded shortly after.

The Phantoms are part of a larger tradition of amateur basketball that continues in the state today with a tournament held each March. The Phantoms may have faded into history, but they represent an important piece of North Dakota sports history.

Dakota Datebook by Daniel Sauerwein


Dakota Datebook is made in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and funded by Humanities North Dakota, a nonprofit, independent state partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the program do not necessarily reflect those of Humanities North Dakota or the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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