John B. McLendon has been enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame twice but many still don’t know about his significant contributions to the game. Coach Mac, as he was called, was the first Black coach of an integrated professional sports team, the first Black coach in the ABA, and much more.
McLendon was born April 5, 1915 in Hiawatha, Kansas. A star athlete in high school, he played junior college basketball before transferring to the University of Kansas. The school’s basketball team was segregated and remained so until 1951, but McLendon was taught the finer points of basketball by its inventor and school athletic director, Dr. James Naismith.
While he never suited up for the team, McLendon’s tutelage served him well in the coaching ranks beginning with his stint at North Carolina Central University. With the Eagles, McLendon won eight CIAA titles and later became the first collegiate coach to notch three consecutive championships with Tennessee State University. In 1966, his hire as coach at Cleveland State University was a first for a Black coach at a predominately white university.
In 1962, McLendon was named the coach of the American Basketball League’s Cleveland Pipers. The feat is recognized by historians as the first time a Black person coached a professional sports team. In 1969, the American Basketball Association’s Denver Rockets (now the Denver Nuggets) made McLendon the league’s first Black coach.
Beyond his history-making achievements, McLendon also brought new innovations to the game including fast break offense and full-court press defense, among other tricks of the trade. He was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame first in 1979, as a contributor and once again in 2016 as a coach. The latter honor happened posthumously as McClendon passed in 1999.
PHOTO: University of Kansas