College Sports

NC Central’s McDougald-McLendon a gem of an arena

Sam Jones as a player at NC Central.
Sam Jones as a player at NC Central. Courtesy of NCCU

More than one gem of an arena resides in the college basketball hotbed of Durham, albeit in the shadows of the hallowed halls of Cameron Indoor Stadium. A mere five driving miles away, McDougald-McLendon Arena stands in all its glory on the N.C. Central campus.

In much the same way Cameron is considered the Mecca of men’s college basketball, McDougald-McLendon is thought of as the crown jewel of the historically black college game. Over the years, McDougald-McLendon has played home to a Basketball Hall of Fame player, hosted the most prestigious black college conference tournament in the country, and housed an NCAA Division II national championship team.

Sam Jones was that Hall of Famer who played at N.C. Central from 1952 through 1957 with a two-year break in the middle while he served in the U.S. Army. By the time Jones departed N.C. Central for a standout NBA career with the Boston Celtics, he was a three-time All-CIAA performer and remains second on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,745 points.

“It was a palace,” Jones said recently of McDougald-McLendon, where his No. 41 jersey hangs on one wall along with 15 other retired jerseys for men’s and women’s basketball, a salute to the many outstanding players who have performed in the building.

The long-held belief at N.C. Central holds that McDougald-McLendon was designed with a similar, albeit smaller, blueprint as Cameron. Although there does not appear to be any documentation on that, one only has to walk to center court at McDougald-McLendon to recognize the resemblances.

Cameron’s capacity is listed as 9,314 for basketball. McDougald-McLendon holds 3,116. The lower bowl of seating consists of push-away bleachers in both arenas. The upper level of both includes all chair-back seats. The narrow portals around the upper level are nearly identical in both. Even the baffles that stretch across the ceiling at McDougald-McLendon hung at Cameron until their removal in the early 1980s.

The most noticeable difference in the two is Cameron’s bowl shape, compared to McDougald-McLendon’s U shape. Again, the passed-down belief is the wall that abuts the open end of McDougald-McLendon was added to the plans when funding for the building’s construction ran short. Yet, a story that appeared in the Durham Morning Herald in 1950, two years before the building opened, said the wall would permit further enlargement – “when the time comes” – to a capacity of at least 5,000.

Matchbook sketch

That same story listed the building’s architect as Pease and Company of Charlotte. While the architect differs from Cameron’s designer, there appears to be some lineage between the two that also can be traced to the Palestra in Philadelphia and later through N.C. State’s Reynolds Coliseum.

Eddie Cameron, then the head basketball coach at Duke, is believed to have drawn a rough sketch on the back of a matchbook cover in 1935 of what he wanted the school’s new arena to look like. According to the Duke athletic website, the arena was designed by Julian Abele, who worked for the same architectural firm that built the Palestra. The arena opened as Duke Indoor Stadium on Jan. 6, 1940, with a capacity of 10,000 and a cost of $400,000.

Reynolds Coliseum in Raleigh was originally intended to be similar to Cameron and seat 10,000 as well. Instead, Wolfpack head basketball coach Everett Case had the arena expanded to 12,400 by adding seats in each end zone, thus its shoebox shape. Reynolds opened on Dec. 2, 1949 at a cost of $2.3 million.

Three years later, on Dec. 8, 1952, the N.C. Central gymnasium opened at a cost of $1 million. Original funding for the building, which was approved by the 1947 state legislature, was $700,000. The addition of dormitory accommodations for visiting teams, a glass enclosed press box, classrooms and coaches offices accounted for most of the cost overruns.

Newspaper accounts at the time described the gym, which faces Lawson Street on the N.C. Central campus, as “the largest and most elaborate of its kind among (black) colleges.”

Unfortunately, the man who spearheaded the arena project was no longer on the N.C. Central sideline at its opening. John McLendon, long considered a pioneer in basketball circles for his team’s fast-break style, left N.C. Central in 1952 after 11 seasons as its head coach.

A world of difference

Before he departed, McLendon arranged for the Eagles to open the new arena with a two-night doubleheader that included four of the top historically black college teams in the country. In addition to N.C. Central under new coach Floyd Brown, other participants were Hampton Institute, Texas Southern and Tennessee State.

McLendon was coaching at Hampton Institute, which fell to Tennessee State in the arena’s first game. With Jones scoring 24 points, N.C. Central defeated Texas Southern in the nightcap. The following night, Tennessee State turned back N.C. Central for the tournament championship despite 16 points from Jones.

Prior to the second night’s games, Gov. W. Kerr Scott participated in the arena’s official dedication ceremonies.

All were excited to watch the Eagles in a comfortable arena, after previously shoe-horning into a 1,200-seat gymnasium. The Durham Morning Herald reported that during the 1950-51 season, nearly 1,000 fans were turned away for a game between N.C. Central and West Virginia State. Three N.C. Central students fainted in the cramped quarters, according to the newspaper.

So even though the now-famous secret game of 1944 between the N.C. Central team and a team from the Duke Medical School was played in the tiny gym, few were sorry to see it go.

“It was like moving from the outhouse to the penthouse,” Jones said. “It was a world of difference to come to this new gym with the high ceilings, and it could seat all the students and the outside people who wanted to come. It was just a beautiful gym.”

Lopsided title game

A few years after its opening, the college named the arena in honor of Richard McDougald, a longtime Durham civic leader and N.C. Central graduate who later became executive vice president of Mechanics and Farmers Bank. In 1991, the arena’s name was changed to include McLendon, a Basketball Hall of Fame member.

“I feel the ghost of him every day when I (walk) into this gym,” said eighth-season N.C. Central coach LeVelle Moton, who was standing in a hallway outside his team’s locker room, where a mural of McLendon adorns one wall. “He’s the architect of it all. ... I’m just a caretaker of this program. It’s not my program. It’s his program.”

Perhaps the most significant recognition that McDougald-McLendon Arena was among the finest in college basketball was the decision by the CIAA in 1952 to move its postseason tournament from Washington D.C. to Durham. Over the next seven seasons, the CIAA tournament, which continues to be an annual festival for league affiliates, was staged at McDougald-McLendon, just down the road from where the ACC was holding its annual tournament at Reynolds Coliseum.

Among the N.C. Central greats who have played in the gym were, in addition to Jones, Lee Davis, who later played in the old ABA; Van Fulmer, who led small colleges in rebounding; Jones “Trees” Taylor and Robert Little, who both later played for the Harlem Globetrotters; and on the women’s side, Amba Kongolo, the program’s first WNBA draft pick.

The one prominent banner hanging from the rafters recognizes N.C. Central’s 1989 NCAA Division II championship. The Eagles’ 28-4 record that season under coach Michael Bernard included the most lopsided championship game victory in Division II history, a 73-46 decision over Southeast Missouri State.

The arena underwent a spectacular $750,000 renovation in 2015 that included improvements to the floor and lights as well as the addition of an overhanging scoreboard. The arena remains an intimidating environment for opponents and annually is filled when rival N.C. A&T visits.

Cy Alexander’s teams played four times at McDougald-McLendon Arena during his time at N.C. A&T. He said the atmosphere for that game compared to any Duke-UNC game. Alexander will also tell you his teams never won a game there.