View From The Shadows: A Look At Black College History

By Fred Whitted
Updated: December 22, 2004

 Coach John McLendon
Coach John McLendon

TODAY: The McLendon Solution

FAYETTEVILLE, N.C. — When we look at the contributions of Blacks to the game of basketball, it is more popular to look at the players. Players come and go.

Believe it or not, there are players who will eclipse all that we have seen Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant do. Every week we sit in front of our TV’s and watch the exploits of agile young men, but, do we ever stop to ponder where this came from?

First, let’s burst a few bubbles by confirming that basketball is the “Johnny come lately” of sports, especially for Blacks. While it has been played by Blacks for nearly a century, it did not become a real part of our sports diet until around World War II. It was a major sport in the north, but due in great part to the lack of facilities; it did not immediately catch on in the south.

For many years, it was more of an outdoor sport. Most Black colleges did not have proper facilities, and it was not until 1925 that the first HBCU, Hampton, got a gym suitable for playing basketball. Before that, it spread primarily through the YMCA, but there were a few coaches who used it as a method of keeping football players in condition. Because football season ended in early December, basketball play did not begin until after Christmas, and lasted until time for baseball.

Most basketball coaches were also football coaches at HBCUs. A few were assistant coaches who were given the additional responsibility of coaching basketball, especially if the head coach was not interested, or, did not have time to devote to it.

The arrival of John McLendon soon changed all of that. Soon after becoming head basketball coach, he began the practice of keeping his players in town so they could practice and be ready to play immediately after Christmas. To work this out with the school, he and his players would resurface the gym floor over the holidays, offsetting the expense for the school. In turn, this allowed enough money to feed and house the players while the rest of the school was closed.

A brief look at the number of firsts in Coach Mac’s life shows that he was not only a man of great vision, he was a man who was pursued things with great passion. When he locked on to something, consider it done.

He was one of the coaches who suggested that the CIAA begin a championship tournament. His suggestion came out in 1941, and he began to lobby for it at any meeting of CIAA officials. From there, the process was carried out, and today, we have one of the largest indoor sports history.

Still, his greatest accomplishments may have been in the area of race relations. Because racial issues are often overlooked a great events, some of the things that Coach Mac did could easily be swept aside so that the discussion could move to more pleasant issues.

First, in 1943, because of a mix up in the names of the school, North Carolina Central was invited to play a team from the U.S. Marine Base at Camp Lejeune. It was not until they arrived on base that the mistake was discovered. According to North Carolina law, the game should have been cancelled. After a brief conversation with the base commander, the game was permitted to be played because it was being held on federal property, the local laws did not apply. The Eagles went on to win the first integrated basketball game to be held in North Carolina.

The following year he helped to arrange the first integrated collegiate basketball game in North Carolina. He was instrumental in arranging a game between his North Carolina College Eagles and players from the Duke Medical School. While this was not a varsity against varsity game, the significance is in that it was played at a time when it was a breech of state law for Blacks to play whites.

All involved could have paid a heavy toll for simply playing a game of basketball. Each of these events served to plant the seeds for integration, even though the game with Duke would remain a secret for 50 years.

The McLendon firsts did not stop there. He was instrumental in the efforts of National Athletic Steering Committee to integrate the NCAA and NAIA post-season competition. Their efforts were flatly rebuffed by the NCAA.

The NAIA eventually agreed to welcome them, with the stipulation that Black colleges were all grouped into District 29 and had to determine their own champion, who would then participate in the NAIA Championship Tournament. Once this was in place, he went on to become the first Black coach to win the NAIA National Championship, which he did three consecutive times.

As the barriers were beginning to fall, Coach Mac arranged for his team to participate in the pre-season NAIA Tournament. This marked the first competition between an HBCU from the south and white institutions. This served to open even more doors by proving that Blacks could successfully compete against white coaches and teams.

Coach Mac not only succeeded in coaching basketball teams at various schools. Using the philosophy he learned from the late James Naismith at the University of Kansas, he preached fast-break basketball. He believed that basketball was strictly a fast-paced game that should be played on the run.

He used pressure defense to turn the ball over or to cause an errant shot, which led to a rebound, an outlet pass, creating a miss-match during transition, and an easy basket. He not only preached this, he taught it, and put it in writing in a book call Fast-break Basketball.

As you see, Coach McLendon’s fingerprints are all over the game of basketball. It did not end with him as a coach. After he left coaching, he became the first Black to work as a representative for Converse.

As a representative, he was able to negotiate a shoe contract of coaches that was the fore-runner for today’s athletes. That has grown from a small stipend for coaches into a multi-million dollar package at larger schools than those he served.

No discussion of John McLendon is complete without one of his greatest fetes for it truly changed the game. As valuable as making the game part of the landscape of the Black community was, one of his greatest contributions to the game was integrating the NBA. A glimpse of any NBA team’s today makes it vertually impossible to believe that there was a time when Blacks were not welcome in the NBA.

It was Coach Mac who helped to orchestrate the signing of the first Black players into the NBA. He took two players, Harold Hunter and Earl “Moonfixer” Lloyd to professional tryouts that lead to their receiving contracts with professional teams.

Hunter signed with a team that would fold before he got a chance to make it. Lloyd, on the other hand went on to a good career as a player, and later as a coach. Although there was a quota system based on a gentlemen’s agreement for a number of years, his efforts would eventually become a flood of Black players coming into the league.

The McLendon effect is everywhere you look. He has never received credit for a number of things that he did. So, the next time you see a player hold up four fingers and the team drops into the corners, think about John McLendon. While you will hear most announcers talking about Dean Smith inventing this offense, the truth is John McLendon was using this offense before Dean Smith got his first coaching job.

Smith has long credited Coach Mac for teaching him the offense, most announcers blow past that. The two enjoyed a special relationship because Coach Mac once coached in the same school where Coach Smith’s father coached. In 1970, the two were together and Coach Mac taught Coach the four-corners offense.

It does not end there, when you see all of the Black players in the ACC, think of Coach Mac because he helped to stir the first stellar Black player into the ACC. Coach Mac had recruited Charlie Scott out of Laurinburg Institute to go to Kentucky State.

At the same time, UNC was trying to find a quality Black player who would help them to integrate their rank. Coach Mac convince the UNC assistant that Scott more than fit the bill. Because Coach understood the historic implications, he helped to persuade Scott to go to UNC and the rest is history. This is much the same as with the NBA.

The McLendon Effect on the game of basketball is indelible. While he was against racial intolerance, he had a great understanding of what sports could do to improve racial relations.

He, like most Black coaches, understood that they would lose their grip on Black players, they also understood the greater issues. It was this kind of commitment to the sport and to bettering mankind that drove John McLendon. The time has come for more of America to get to know that this five-foot six giant did so much to make the world a better place.