I should have written some of this stuff down.
The theme was African-American pioneers as some 600 packed the floor of Cleveland State University’s large Wolstein Center on Tuesday for a luncheon that specifically honored the memory and accomplishments of John McLendon.
The program began with a video tribute, an excerpt culled from an hour documentary which was done a good 10 years ago when McLendon was still alive. John, himself, was interviewed at length in the original TV special.
As McLendon talked about many things, my lips moved along with his. I knew the stories because he shared them with me many years ago — 40 years ago, to be exact, when he was Cleveland State’s basketball coach, the first black head coach at a college not designated “historically black.”
He was already a legend in black college basketball, having coached at North Carolina College in the 1940s and at Tennessee A&I, later known as Tennessee State, where he won three consecutive NAIA national championships in the 1950s.
McLendon had credentials. He was even fired by George Steinbrenner as coach of Steinbrenner’s pro team in Cleveland in the early 1960s.
When Fenn College became Cleveland State in 1966, the school reached out to McLendon to help it step up to Division I. McLendon coached CSU for three years and returned in the 1990s to teach a course in the athletic department. He always was the teacher.
My favorite story was about the “secret game” in 1944, details of which were guarded for decades.
McLendon’s North Carolina College, located just outside of Durham, N.C., 12 miles from Duke, was a running machine that helped pioneer the fastbreak. Traditional white teams, however, were still executing their slow-motion, half-court offenses, generally oblivious to what the black schools were literally running.
Believing that it was past time to get black and white players together on the basketball floor, McLendon finally cajoled Duke to field a team of white players to meet his North Carolina College in a closed gym.
Duke did not send its white varsity. Instead, Duke put together a team made up of Army and Navy doctors assigned to Duke University Medical School. That’s not to discredit their basketball ability. The doctors could play. They had all been college varsity players before going to medical school.
What they got at the hands of North Carolina College was an entirely different education.
The doctors rode in a bus to the gym on the North Carolina College campus, where the doors were locked, no spectators were permitted inside, refs were hired, as well as scorekeepers and scoreboard operators, and a page was written in basketball history.
When the game was over, McLendon asked the Duke hospital coach to play another 20 minutes.
“Why?” the Duke coach responded. “You already beat us by 30 points. Now you want to beat us by more?”
“I want to mix up the teams. I want some of your players to play with my players,” said McLendon.
In a quiet gym in North Carolina, out of sight from the rest of the world, John McLendon integrated college basketball.
McLendon said the players enjoyed each other so much that they spent the rest of the day together and that night socialized in the North Carolina College dorms.
McLendon was so far ahead of his time that the rest of the world is still trying to catch up.
Dan Coughlin is a columnist for The Chronicle-Telegram and a sportscaster for Channel 8. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.