John McLendon’s true gift: teaching

Photo courtesy of the University of Kansas

As has become tradition across the Horizon League, men’s and women’s basketball teams throughout the conference celebrate the life and accomplishments of John McLendon, the longtime coach who, in 1967, was tapped to take over at Cleveland State.

With that hire, he became the first Black coach to take the helm of a team at a predominantly white school. He was also the first Black professional basketball coach, also in Cleveland, having been hired by the Pipers from the old ABL in 1962.

Beyond that, McLendon is also well-known for what has been referred to as “The Secret Game,” when his team, the North Carolina College for Negroes (which later became North Carolina Central) faced off against Duke on March 12, 1944, at a time when Black colleges, as a product of Jim Crow, were prohibited from playing their white counterparts.

In fact, the story of the game itself wouldn’t be told in detail until decades later, when Scott Ellsworth wrote about it for the New York Times Magazine. The story not only detailed the first game, in which McLendon’s squad bested the Blue Devils, 88-44, but also a second game, in which players from both teams mixed up the lineups and played against each other.

This second desegregated match-up was over 10 years before San Francisco won the NCAA Tournament three Black players, nearly 20 years before Loyola-Chicago won the NCAA national championship team with an integrated lineup, and, three years after this, the Texas Western team, which had five Black starters, won.

Beyond the impact of The Secret Game in the lore of college basketball, McLendon was, on top of everything else, a student and a teacher of the game. As a young man at Kansas, he learned from the creator of the entire sport, Dr. James Naismith, which he was the athletic director. And he’s credited with the invention of the fast break and the full-court press, things that are ubiquitous as basketball itself.

As a teacher, McLendon worked both on the court and off the court. After leaving taking a job with the ABA’s Denver Rockets (now the Nuggets) after his stint at CSU, he returned to Cleveland State in 1991 to serve as an advisor to the athletic department. He also served in a faculty role, teaching a course called the History of African American Athletes.

And it was in this class that his path converged with my own.

The course was offered in the spring quarter of 1997 (before CSU moved to semesters). And my intrigue with sports in general as the sports editor of The Cauldron, Cleveland State’s student newspaper, combined with my long-standing interest in history led me to sign up. To my recollection, I counted among my classmates a friend of mine, Dave Morway, as well as some members of the 1996-97 CSU men’s basketball team.

I’m not entirely sure what my expectations were of the class, given that many of the upper-level history courses were pretty intensive. At the same time, I’d be lying if I hadn’t thought about what it would be like to learn under a man who had brought so much to the game, a great deal of which was, at the point, slowly, but finally, being celebrated.

Now, you’d have expected a former coach to spend the entire term regaling about his coaching days, but it was clear from the opening class that McLendon was, at his heart, much more than a person who cared about just the sport he lived and breathed for nearly is entire life. True, he did spend some time talking about when he was at Kansas learning everything he could about basketball from Naismith. But he also branched out into all of the other sports as well, staying true to the spirit of the course.

One particular lesson that stood out to me was when McLendon discussed auto racing, a long-standing passion of mine. I was fixated when he went into the stories of Wendell Scott, who was, prior to 2021, the only Black driver to win a NASCAR race at the top level, and Willy T. Ribbs, who became the first Black driver to qualify for the Indianapolis 500.

When McLendon passed in 1999, I was in my second stint at The Cauldron’s sports editor, so naturally, I eulogized him in print, most likely saying the same things that I just said here. In the years that followed, he was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame two more times (he was originally inducted in 1979 as a contributor), the College Basketball Hall of Fame and the Cleveland State Athletic Hall of Fame.

In addition, he’s been the subject of a 2007 biography, featured in multiple documentaries and continues to receive post-humous accolades, including the Horizon League annual celebration of him.

While fans and teams across the league will celebrate McLendon as the coach that he was, I will always remember him as the teacher that he also was.

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