|News||October 14, 1999|
John McLendon, one of basketball's great pioneers, died Friday, Oct. 9 at his home in Cleveland Heights at the age of 84. McLendon spent several stints at CSU in different capacities, but as can be seen from just some of his accomplishments, his involvement transcended the sport.
John B. McLendon, who many say insisted that the "B" stood for basketball, was the last living link to Naismith. McLendon met Naismith, his adviser, in 1933 at the University of Kansas where he was a freshman physical education major. He never played basketball at Kansas because of segregation laws that he would later help to break down, but he did learn the game from Naismith and went on to be the first African American to earn a degree in physical education from the University of Kansas.
From there he went to the University of Iowa where he earned a master's degree in health, physical education, and recreation. He then began his illustrious coaching career. His first coaching job, received with the help of Naismith, was at Lawrence Memorial High School in Lawrence, Kansas where he won a league championship. It was the first of many feats that McLendon would accomplish.
He moved to the college ranks in 1940, coaching at North Carolina Central University. While at the school in 1944, McLendon shunned segregation laws, organizing a secret basketball game between his Eagles and a team from the Duke Medical School.
According to a 1997 article by Bud Shaw of the Plain Dealer, Scott Ellsworth, a historian, has found no other similar game in the entire decade of the 40's or even the 50's. He would stay at NCCU until 1952 at which time he moved on to coach Hampton Institute in Virginia, and then to Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State).
There he achieved one of his many firsts. McLendon became the first collegiate coach, of any color, to lead his team to three consecutive national championships. Between 1957 and 1959 McLendon's teams took the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) title three times. It was with this team that McLendon is said to have perfected "fast break basketball" which he began using at NCCU.
Prior to that title streak, McLendon made another, possibly more important statement, in the world of basketball. According to the Shaw article, McLendon's team was invited to compete in the NAIA Christmas Invitational Tournament. He agreed to bring his team, but only if they could stay in the same hotel as the white teams. Upon arriving at the hotel, the team was informed that all but two of the maids had quit in protest. McLendon promptly instructed his team to assist the remaining maids in cleaning up the rooms.
"There are different ways to solve problems," said McLendon. From Tennessee A&I, McLendon left the college ranks. He moved on to lead the Cleveland Pipers, an entry in the newly formed National Industrial Basketball League, in 1960. His team finished fourth out of nine, the best-ever finish for a first-year coach. They also defeated the U.S. Olympic basketball squad, becoming the first ever amateur team to do so.
The Pipers joined the ABL in McLendon's second year at the helm, making him the first African American professional basketball coach. In that season, McLendon's team won the ABL title. Within the year, new team owner George Steinbrenner of Lorain, current owner of the New York Yankees, fired McLendon.
McLendon accepted a job with the U.S. State Department, but was not gone from Cleveland for very long. He returned to the city after spending three years as a coach at Kentucky State University to become the first black coach at a predominantly white university, Cleveland State, in 1966. CSU was seeking to establish itself, having recently changed its name from Fenn College.
While at CSU, McLendon established a 27-42 record and significantly improved the Vikings schedule. Also, with limited resources, McLendon was able to secure visits with such recruits as Julius Erving. He also won his 500 game while coaching at CSU. After three years with the Vikings, McLendon went back to the pros, joining the Denver Rockets (now the Nuggets) of the ABA. He was the ABA's first black coach. He coached for just 28 games in Denver, winning only nine, and left amidst disputes with the owner.
His collegiate coaching career ended with a record of 523-165, a .760 winning percentage. He coached the 1973 USA team in the World Basketball Festival in Lima, Peru. His coaching career then over, McLendon became a consultant for Spalding. During his 20 years with the company he traveled to 56 countries teaching basketball clinics to promote Spalding basketball shoes.
In 1978, John B. McLendon was inaugurated to the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, an honor that capped the many he earned during his career as a coach. He returned to CSU in 1990, accepting a job as special assistant to the athletic director and was a consultant with the expansion Toronto Raptors. He also began to teach a course, "History of the African-American Athlete," after being appalled at encountering a senior at CSU who didn't know who Jackie Robinson was.
He stood in front of that class on the first day of school this year, describing in detail many of the above events. Unknown to him or his students it was the last class he would ever teach. McLendon took ill soon after and died last Friday. He was one of the great men in basketball. He was a student of the game and one of the great innovators of its play. He broke down barriers as a coach in the collegiate and professional ranks. He gave to the game and to the schools and teams that he worked with from every fiber of his being. He gave more than could ever be given back to him. Let him not be forgotten.
Editor's Note: The author of this story
was a student in McLendon's final class.
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