John McLendon (1915 – 1999)

Written By Adrienne Dunn

Protégée of basketball inventor James Naismith, John McLendon was born in Hiawatha, Kansas. At the University of Kansas, McLendon changed the pace of the game from a crawl to a fast-paced, high-action event by implementing the fast break method of basketball. Fast break basketball emphasized teamwork, speed and agility. Although he is credited with improving basketball, McLendon was not permitted to play on Kansas’s varsity team because of his race.

Although he did not play at the University of Kansas, McLendon had a successful career coaching high school and college basketball. He coached at several historically black colleges, including North Carolina Central University, Hampton University, Tennessee State University, and Kentucky State University. While coaching at North Carolina Central (1937-52), he co-founded the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) Tournament. In 1944, he organized a secret game between North Carolina Central and Duke, at a time where integrated games were illegal. At Tennessee State University, McLendon’s teams won three consecutive National Athletic Intercollegiate Association (NAIA) championships, and McLendon became the first collegiate coach to win three consecutive national titles. He was also was the first African American to coach at Cleveland State University in 1966, a predominately white school, and the first African American to coach at any predominantly white school.

McLendon’s coaching career extended beyond high school and college basketball.  Between 1961 and 1963, he served as head coach of the American Basketball League’s Cleveland Pipers, making him the first African American head coach of a professional basketball team. McLendon also coached the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association. Off the court, he published Fast Break Basketball and Fine Point Fundamentals in 1962 and thus became the first African American to author a book about basketball. He used his journalistic skills to promote African American college basketball in African American papers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Carolina Times. This pioneering coach was inducted into the CIAA Hall of Fame in 1978 and, a year later, into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.

McLendon’s innovations dramatically changed basketball.  He emphasized conditioning, teamwork, and complex plays.  Although unable to play basketball in college, he is credited with coaching an integrated basketball game at North Carolina Central University and a marine team from Camp Lejeune in 1950—a bold defiance of the laws of the Jim Crow South.