By: Sam Zeff and Matt Hodapp
To get ready for this Archiver, I want you to think back to the 2008 NCAA National Championship game when The Jayhawks would win in overtime. Picture a play early in the first half when KU rebounds the ball, takes off on a fast break that ends up with a dunk on the other end. Ninety-four feet in just seven seconds.
It’s hard to imagine for most of us, but that’s not how basketball was played for most of its existence.
The man who invented that style of play, that moved the game from the two hand set shot that can only be pictured in black and white, is a Kansan who literally changed the complexion of the sport.
A documentary came out last year celebrating the life of that coach. "Fast Break: The Legend of John McLendon" was directed by University of Kansas film Professor Kevin Willmott who says McLendon is an American hero.
“He is one of those guys who perservers all these odds and it changes America and sports for all of us. The game that we love and take for granted now is played the way its played today and looks the way it looks today because of John McLendon,” says Willmott.
McLendon was born in Hiawatha but grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. He attended Northeast Junior High and Sumner High School which was an all African-American school at the time. He wasn’t good enough to make the basketball team but lettered in gymnastics.
He started college at KCK Community College and would eventually land at the University of Kansas. While he wasn’t a very good player, McLendon loved basketball and his step father decided if he wanted to learn to coach he might as well learn from the inventor of the game. So, Mclendon went to KU and studied physical education because that’s where James Naismith, the inventor of the game, taught. But as painful as it is to hear, KU in 1933 wasn’t the beacon of civil rights that we like to imagine.
“The Free State myth is what we sometimes refer tothis situation as. While abolitionist did a lot to win the Civil War and keep slavery out of the territory, after the Civil War Kansas wasn’t that much different than most of the other northern states,” says Archiver historian Virgil Dean.
“Throughout the late 19th century you have some opportunities for blacks; Kansas is considered a place to go in the post Civil War migration. KU opened up fairly early for blacks, black students enrolled in the 1880s and some graduated. But by the turn of the century it was changing quite a bit. Segregation was becoming more prevalent.”
In 1936, McLendon was the first black man to graduate from KU with a Phys Ed degree. The first barrier he would break. He learned basketball by talking with Naismith and hanging out in Robinson gym watching Phog Allen’s practices. Naismith got McLendon his first job, coaching in Lawrence public schools.
Then in 1941 he got his first college head coaching job at North Carolina College for Negroes, now North Carolina Central University. It’s easy to find his coaching records, the fact that he won three consecutive NAIA championship at Tennessee A&I in 1957, ‘58 and ‘59. He was the first coach to ever win back to back to back national championships. He broke a barrier when he became the first black professional coach in 1962 with the Cleveland Pipers of the old American Basketball League. And he broke another barrier in 1966 when he became the first black man to coach at a predominately white college, Cleveland State.
But if you want to know about McLendon the man, there’s only one person to talk to. Professor Milton Katz teaches at the Kansas City Art Institute. Katz’s office is filled with sports memorabilia, mostly baseball and, of course, basketball. While Kevin Willmott made the McLendon documentary, Katz was the driving force behind it.
“I’m a social historian. So I’ve written a lot about civil rights activists over the years and I’m a basketball enthusiast," says Katz.
So when Katz moved to Kansas City in 1974 he went to the NAIA tournament at Municipal Auditorium downtown. That’s where he met McLendon.
“What made me want to write about Coach McLendon was the incredible courage, fortitude and stamina he had to really break the color barrier in Kansas City in collegiate athletics,” Katz says. “He was an extremely humble man, an elegant man, highly educated and really a person with the finest moral character of anyone I’ve ever met.”
The finest moral character of anyone Katz ever met. You hear that sentiment from many others in the film. But just like every other sport in America, well almost every endeavor in America, it would take too long to truly recognize what he meant to basketball. McLendon did well, to be sure, after coaching he went on to a nice career with Converse sneakers. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1979 as a contributor, whatever the hell that means, but finally was inducted as a coach last year at a ceremony in Springfield, Mass.
Even by then, Katz says, McLendon was a mystery to even the biggest basketball fans, “If he was white there’s no doubt that in 1970 when that first letter went to the Hall of Fame nominating as the fourth winnest coach in collegiate basketball he would have been in the Hall of Fame as a coach.”