Recounting McLendon’s legacy in basketball and intercollegiate athletics
By: Maddie Saines
John McLendon’s legacy runs deep through the realm of intercollegiate athletics and the game of basketball. He is a Theodore Roosevelt Award recipient, Naismith Basketball, Cleveland State University Athletics and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame member, and made history by becoming the first African American head basketball coach at a predominately white institution (PWI) and a professional sports team.
McLendon, born in 1915 in Hiawatha, Kansas, grew up playing basketball, a new organized sport that was invented a little over 20 years before his birth. After managing his high school team, upon graduating, he spent a year at Kansas City Kansas Junior College where he rarely played on the undefeated basketball team. He went to pursue coaching and physical education in 1933 at the University of Kansas- the place that would set his basketball career in motion.
During his time at UK, McLendon worked under James Naismith- the university’s athletic director, professor, and the man who invented modern basketball. McLendon took several of Naismith’s classes and developed a personal rapport with Naismith. The two discussed game strategies often, and McLendon credits Naismith for his coaching style “constant movement.” While UK had a collegiate basketball team, at the time it was segregated. McLendon tried out for the team several times but was cut each time.
McLendon’s first coaching gig came to him upon his graduation from UK. He was hired on as an assistant coach at North Carolina College, then in 1940 was promoted to head coach. He was extremely successful at NCC winning eight black college basketball championships. McLendon then coached at Tennessee State until 1959.
McLendon made his way to Cleveland in 1961, where he made history by becoming the first African American coach for a professional sports team coaching the Cleveland Pipers. The Pipers were an integrated professional team playing in the American Basketball League.
After his short stint with the Pipers, in 1966 McLendon was hired on as the head men’s basketball coach at CSU, where he became the first African American head coach at a PWI. He coached at CSU for three seasons and then ended his collegiate coaching career with a 496-179 record. McLendon’s last coaching stint was with the Denver Rockets with the American Basketball Association in 1969.
After McLendon’s death in 1999, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball, Cleveland State Athletics, and National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame for the legacy he has left within intercollegiate athletics and the game of basketball.
This year McLendon is being honored for his work and received the 2021 Theodore Roosevelt Award. This is one of the highest honors one can receive from the NCCA- which was formed by Roosevelt- to support organized collegiate athletics. The Vikings along with the Horizon League also recognized Feb. 12 as “John McLendon Day,” to honor the late coach and basketball pioneer.
Additionally, CSU has announced the launch of the John McLendon Enrichment Campaign, in which donations support students’ overall success at the university. All donations to the campaign through February will go to the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative.