The timing was unfortunate. This year’s inductees into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame were announced the same day as the NCAA national championship game, when folks around here were, oh, a tad distracted. Still, even had the list been trumpeted in banner headlines, or flashed on electronic message boards on I-40, it’s doubtful the man whose link to North Carolina was strongest would have commanded the attention he merits.
Included in the 10-member Hall of Fame class are deserving modern stars, familiar names such as guard Allen Iverson and big men Yao Ming and Shaquille O’Neal, women’s player Sheryl Swoopes, and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. But the honoree whose impact on basketball was greatest, who quietly and relentlessly hastened racial integration and changed the way the game is played, was former North Carolina Central head coach John B. McLendon, who died in 1999 at age 84.
This spring, McLendon was chosen for Hall of Fame induction for the second time, making him the only person represented among the game’s greats both as a contributor and a coach.
The list of McLendon’s accomplishments is testament in itself. So is the respect with which “Coach Mac,” a trailblazer with a pencil-thin mustache and a genial manner, was regarded by contemporaries in the CIAA. Those included fellow Hall of Famer Clarence “Big House” Gaines, with whom he traveled on recruiting trips to save money and share coaching ideas, and grateful opponents whose teams he critiqued upon request.
“Johnny Mac was the man. He’s, like, the father, he was father to all of us,” said Cal Irvin, the 18-year coach at North Carolina A&T State. “Coach McLendon was the best, the best. He was something else. Not only for the basketball, just for the man as an individual. I never met a man who had the greatness with the humility at the same time.”
Few strategic innovations can be ascribed entirely to a single person. But McLendon embraced speed in an era of plodding, often-patterned play and is considered the progenitor of fast-break basketball. He also developed what he called a “two-in-the-corners” freeze offense made famous decades later as the “Four Corners” delay under North Carolina coach Dean Smith.
“I can tell you right now, we could run the Four Corners as well as anybody in the United States,” says Laurinburg native Sam Jones. The Naismith Hall of Fame guard played at Durham’s North Carolina College for Negroes under McLendon and subsequently won 10 NBA titles with the uptempo Boston Celtics from the 1958 through 1969 seasons. “When I went to Boston and they talked about the fast break, I thought nothing of it because I learned it from Coach McLendon.”
McLendon presided at Central from 1941 through 1952 and was among the founders of the CIAA tournament in 1946. Only the Southern Conference’s postseason event is older – history that continues to elude ESPN, which televises the 1954-vintage ACC tournament and touts it as the nation’s oldest.
McLendon’s Central teams won eight CIAA titles, an AAU championship and an industrial league championship. Competing in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) playoffs while the NCAA tournament was off-limits to “colored colleges,” McLendon, then at Tennessee State, became the first coach to win three straight national championships (1957-59). His Tigers also were the first African-American college teams to secure national titles in integrated competition, a dozen years before every ACC school even added black players to their varsity rosters.
Quietly defiant, McLendon facilitated a so-called “secret game” in 1944 between his N.C. Central players and an intramural squad of Duke medical school students at a time when integrated competition was generally taboo throughout the South. McLendon also dared break what he called “the chains of negative interracial practice” in 1950, taking the Eagles to Camp Lejeune to face a squad of presumably well-conditioned Marines.
Central players ran five miles each morning before breakfast, with the coach waiting by the railroad tracks at the turnaround point near N.C. 55 to ensure that individuals participated. “We had the type of players that could run and play defense,” Jones recalls. “This is what he wanted us to do. We could run them out of the gym, and the more that we ran the tireder they’d get.” Sure enough, by the end of the third quarter, the Marines were so winded they quit playing, according to Jones. “Then they tried to recruit us to the Marines,” he says.
Johnny Mac was the man. He’s, like, the father, he was father to all of us.
Cal Irvin, the 18-year coach at North Carolina A&T State
Reflecting the professional respect McLendon commanded, he was chosen as an assistant coach on three different U.S. Olympic basketball squads (1960, 1964, 1968). In 1961 he broke the color barrier as the first African-American to direct a professional team in any sport – the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League. (Owner George Steinbrenner once helped broker a deal at halftime for a Piper player to join the opposing team.) Later, McLendon was head coach of the Denver Rockets, now the Nuggets, in the American Basketball Association. At Cleveland State in 1966, his pioneering continued as he became the first black coach at a predominantly white school.
“His story’s never been told to a mass audience,” says George Raveling, the former coach who serves on the Hall’s board of directors. “In the absence of that, he stays in the shadow of greatness.”
McLendon’s connection to the game traces to its roots. After a year in junior college, where he played basketball, the Kansas native transferred to the University of Kansas. The school’s first black physical education student chose as his adviser a professor in his 70s, one James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, who helped guide McLendon through a number of encounters with racial prejudice at KU.
McLendon, an adept boxer and swimmer, attempted to try out for the Jayhawks basketball team directed by Hall of Famer Forrest “Phog” Allen, for whom Dean Smith later played. But Allen, considered the father of basketball coaching, wouldn’t let McLendon play because of his race. The undergrad observed instead, learning from Allen and Naismith.
Ultimately McLendon’s accomplishments and influence earned him induction as a Hall of Fame “contributor” in 1979. Contributor is an amorphous term defined by the Hall as making “significant contributions to the game of basketball.” The broad designation apparently satisfied McLendon, who wrote a letter to that effect, according to Matt Zeysing, the Naismith Hall of Fame’s resident historian.
But others were offended, knowing McLendon had first failed to gain selection as a coach. “I feel that he was more than a contributor in basketball,” objects Jones, saying he speaks for other former McLendon players as well. “In fact I sort of thought of him as a Naismith.”
That McLendon will be inducted as a coach on Sept. 9 is “long overdue,” says LeVelle Moton, NCCU’s head coach and a proud steward of the school’s basketball tradition. “I think it’s kind of a backhanded compliment, if you want me to be completely honest.”
Perhaps this fresh chance to celebrate McLendon’s legacy can reduce a yawning gap in popular awareness that’s a vestige of less-inclusive times. “Those who know appreciate him,” says Moton, a star player at Central during the mid-’90s. “Those that don’t appreciate him don’t … because they’re not educated to who he is. That’s a tragedy, an absolute tragedy.”