Hoop Legend, Civil Rights Pioneer

By Tony McClean, BASN Editor In Chief
Updated: September 2, 2007

NEW HAVEN, Ct. (BASN) — In 1998 while working for the Winston-Salem (N.C) Journal and WSNC-FM, I was lucky enough to cover and attend my first ever CIAA Basketball Tournament. One of the oldest college tournaments in the country, Hall of Famers like Earl “The Pearl” Monroe and Al Attles have played in this prestigious tournament.

During that period, I also had the pleasure of being able to spend some quality time with Winston-Salem State’s legendary head coach Clarence “Big House” Gaines.

One of the winningiest coaches in the history of the sport, “Big House” was a walking encyclopedia of basketball knowledge and history. At one point during the tournament, Coach Gaines introduced me to a diminutive coach named John B. McLendon Jr.

I had always heard in passing of the man known as “Coach Mac”, but I never really knew of his accomplishments and his contributions to the game of basketball.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until he passed away the next year that I realized who Coach Gaines introduced me to. Coach McLendon was also a pioneer, supreme innovator, a teacher, and consummate gentleman who waged a successful fight to break down barriers of racial segregation in college and professional athletics.

Back in 2007, a book was written that took a complete look at McLendon’s life on and off the court. Written by Dr. Milton S. Katz, “Breaking Through” is the uplifting story of a champion’s struggle for equality in 1940’s and 50’s America, when one coach refused to accept that teams at traditionally black colleges like North Carolina College and Tennessee A&I were unable to achieve national prominence.

McLendon’s creative and courageous efforts to “breakthrough” the color lines of institutional racism include the famous “secret game” between his North Carolina College players and the Duke University Medical School in 1944, ten years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision.

McLendon taught his players, including such NBA standouts as Sam Jones, Dick Barnett, and John Barnhill, that dignity and self-respect were more important than the numbers on a scoreboard, though he nonetheless achieved a 76% winning mark over a 25-year collegiate coaching career.

From humble beginnings in Hiawatha, Kansas, McLendon graduated in 1932 as one of the top students in his class from Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas.

One of only 60 black students at the University of Kansas in the 1930s, McLendon studied under the legendary Dr. James Naismith, the father of basketball, and they became close friends.

He was an early pioneer of game preparation, conditioning, the fast break, the full-court press, and a two corner offense that became the seed for Dean Smith’s famous four corners, and he won eight CIAA titles at North Carolina College between 1941 and 1952.

In fact, nine years before Texas Western captured the NCAA championship, McLendon’s black college squads from Tennessee A&I University defeated more than a dozen white teams from throughout the U.S., including the South, to capture three consecutive NAIA national championships.

McLendon’s on-and off-court accomplishments paved the way for black colleges, black coaches, and black athletes to compete and succeed on both the collegiate and professional levels.

Katz added, “Here was a man that was never whistled for a technical during his entire coaching career. According to many of his players, he never used profanity and never raised his voice.”

He also became the first black man to coach a professional basketball team when the Cleveland Pipers joined the American Basketball League in 1961 under then team owner George Steinbrenner.

Yes, the same man that would later become the owner of the New York Yankees.

McLendon was also the first black coach on the 1968 USA Olympic basketball staff and the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Olympic Committee. In 1969, he became the first black coach in the American Basketball Association with the Denver Rockets.

By 1979, McLendon became the first black coach enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and he is a member of 14 other Halls of Fame. When the NAIA celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1997, he was chosen as one of the top five coaches.

In 1991, he was selected as one of the top ten coaches of the century by CBS basketball analyst Billy Packer in a book celebrating the 100th anniversary of the game of basketball. Plain and simple, the name John B. McClendon Jr. is synonymous to the history of the game.

His amazing career culminated in his efforts as a basketball ambassador; he traveled to 58 countries, teaching the fundamentals of the game and the value of sportsmanship, and many believe he contributed more to the proliferation of basketball worldwide than any other individual.

“Breaking Through” is both a history lesson and an inspiration to any player, coach, or spectator who has ever known the transcendent powers of a game. Dr. Katz gives an incredible insight on a pioneer that many “knowledgeable” fans of basketball have forgotten.

With Black History Month coming to a close and the 2010 CIAA Tournament set to begin later this week, it’s important that “Coach Mack” and his contributions to the game not be forgotten.