Biography of John McLendon
John McLendon, Jr. (1915-1999) is recognized as an ambassador in the field of athletics, the inventor of basketball’s “Fast Break” and as a civil rights pioneer. “Coach Mac,” as he was affectionately known, is the person responsible for the integration of college basketball.
McLendon's Early Years
Since the age of 10, McLendon was fascinated with all things related to basketball. After his high school playing days ended, he decided to focus on a career in physical education and coaching.
Around the same time, the man who invented basketball, Dr. James Naismith, was teaching at the University of Kansas (KU), which was a short distance from McLendon’s home.
McLendon enrolled in the physical education department at KU, and the eager young scholar and the elder architect of basketball quickly formed a mentee/mentor relationship that encompassed life on and off the court. Naismith was instrumental in helping young McLendon navigate the treacherous racial climate of the 1930s.
After graduating from the University of Kansas in 1937 as the first African-American student to earn a degree in physical education, McLendon then earned his master’s degree in physical education from the University of Iowa.
McLendon’s Basketball Legacy
McLendon’s style as a basketball coach was the product of the many lessons learned from Naismith. Throughout his career, McLendon was the head basketball coach at North Carolina Central College (1940-52), Hampton Institute (1952-54), Tennessee State University (1954-59), Kentucky State University (1963-66) and Cleveland State University (1966-69). In 1944, during his time as a coach at North Carolina College for Negroes, John McLendon helped orchestrate “The Secret Game” between his team and the all-Caucasian Duke University Medical School team. During a time of blatant racism and segregation, “The Secret Game” was monumental because it was the first known racially integrated basketball competition.
While serving as the basketball coach at North Carolina Central, he was also the athletics director, a post he held for 12 years. At Hampton, he had additional positions as the assistant director of athletics and physical education. At Tennessee State, McLendon was appointed to the post of director of basketball operations from 1954-59 and director of the Department of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Athletics from 1962-63.
However, it was his service on the National Athletic Steering Committee, which he founded in 1949, that had a large impact on the integration of basketball, and eventually, all sports. As a leader of the game without rival, McLendon began his championship run in 1957 when he coached Tennessee State to three consecutive NAIA national tournament championships. McLendon’s success in the college ranks led him to the professional arena.
Cleveland businessman Ed Sweeny, owner of the Cleveland Pipers of the National Industrial Basketball League (NIBL), and Mike Cleary, former executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of
McLendon led the racially integrated Pipers to a NIBL championship title in addition to a national Athletic Amateur Union (AAU) title in 1961.
Sweeny eventually sold the team to George Steinbrenner in what was to become Steinbrenner’s first venture into professional sports ownership. The Pipers became part of the American Basketball League (ABL) in 1962, making McLendon the first African-American professional coach.
In 1966, McLendon was hired by Cleveland State University (CSU), becoming the first African-American head basketball coach at a predominantly white institution (PWI). In addition, McLendon coached an integrated U.S. All-Star team overseas, winning all eight games against the Soviet Union while in Russia. He also served as a coach on the U.S. Olympic basketball staff in both 1968 and 1972.
In 1969, McLendon left his coaching post at CSU to become the head coach of the American Basketball Association’s (ABA) Denver Rockets (now the Nuggets). He would later return to the university in 1991 as an athletics department advisor, a position he held until his death in October 1999. During his second stint at CSU, he taught a course titled, “History of Sports and the Role of Minorities in its Development.”
Following his basketball coaching career in 1991, John McLendon worked collaboratively with Converse, serving as a global goodwill ambassador for basketball. He unselfishly and tirelessly delivered shoes and provided basketball clinics to more than 55 countries when he was not distributing sneakers on the south side of Chicago.
Hall of Fame
The recipient of many honors, McLendon was inducted into several Halls of Fame:
- The Helms Foundation – Coaches Division (1962)
- The Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) (1978)
- The NAIA (1983)
- North Carolina Central (1984)
- Tennessee State (1984)
- Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) (1986)
- The state of North Carolina (1996)
- The prestigious Naismith Memorial (1979 & 2016)