Durham News: Sports

Best Sports: John B. McLendon was an integrator and an innovator

Tamar Carroll, Umar Muhammad and Chanda Powell set up the McLendon exhibit at the Durham History Hub.
Tamar Carroll, Umar Muhammad and Chanda Powell set up the McLendon exhibit at the Durham History Hub. Photo by Bonitta Best

To say that coach John B. McLendon was a man before his time is like saying we need air to breathe.

McLendon was a genius, and not just for what he accomplished on the basketball court at N.C. Central. He was an innovator, an integrator. This was a man who learned about the game of basketball from its founder, James Naismith, at the University of Kansas.

Yes, you read right: McLendon was the last surviving student of Naismith’s.

So, to attempt to showcase his contributions is like trying to make a biographical movie of Muhammad Ali. It can be done, but many important details will be left out.

Still, the new McLendon exhibit at the Durham History Hub, “Coach Mac: Integrator and Innovator,” is worth going to see for those who either have never heard of him or who don’t know the depth of his contributions.

The latter is what prompted Tamar Carroll, Umar Muhammad and Chanda Powell to curate the exhibit at the History Hub (919-246-9993), located at 500 W. Main St.

“This exhibit has been a passion of mine,” said Muhammad, who is general manager of the Bull City Legacy, a semi-professional basketball team in Durham. “It’s not just about basketball, but his impact on the community.”

McLendon became NCCU’s basketball coach in 1941 (then N.C. College for Negroes) and led the Eagles to the Negro National College Championship that season.

He organized the now famous “secret game” with Duke on March 12, 1944 – when Jim Crow laws illegalized black and white players participating in the same game.

But it was his basketball sense that made McLendon a legend.

He invented the fast-break offense, although at the time critics called it undisciplined basketball; the full-court press; the full-court zone; the rotating pivot and the double pivot. McLendon first sketched on a sheet of paper the four-corner offense that Dean Smith and Phil Ford made famous.

His book, “Fast Break Basketball: Fundamentals and Fine Points,” is considered one of the greatest sports books ever.

McLendon coached the Eagles to eight CIAA championships from 1941-52 and compiled a 264-60 record. In a shock to Eagle Nation, he left the university in 1953.

Two years later he joined Tennessee State, where he guided TSU to three consecutive NAIA championships, becoming the first collegiate coach to accomplish that feat.

In 1961, McLendon was hired by the Cleveland Pipers of the old American Basketball League, making him the first black head coach in integrated professional sports. He later became the first black head coach at a predominately white institution (Cleveland State) in 1966.

He was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 as a “contributor.” It wasn’t until 2007 that he entered again for his coaching achievements.

“He earned his citizenship as a Durhamite,” Muhammad said. “He passed away on Oct. 9, and we are happy to celebrate his life this month.”