No one in basketball history accomplished more to break racial barriers in the sport than John McLendon, and for that, McLendon was inducted to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor in 1979.
But something was missing.
McLendon, who died in 1999 at age 84, also was an excellent coach, and it seemed somehow inappropriate that his coaching achievements, such as three straight NAIA championships (1957, ’58, ’59 in Kansas City) at Tennessee A&I, didn’t at least share equal billing with his off-court accomplishments.
Now, they will.
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McLendon, a Kansas native who graduated from the University of Kansas, will re-enter the Hall, this time as a coach. He was announced as a member of the Class of 2016 earlier this week.
Four members of the Naismith Hall are enshrined as coach and player: John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens, Bill Sharman and Tom Heinsohn.
McLendon, whose life was full of firsts, will become the first to enter as a contributor and a coach. Milton Katz, McLendon’s biographer (Breaking Through: John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer) and vice president for academic affairs and professor at the Kansas City Art Institute, said the honor is richly deserved.
Here’s what Katz wrote:
Above the entrance to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., are a number of meaningful quotes by outstanding Hall of Famers throughout the years.
Unlike the others, one quote speaks directly to significant social change in modern American history. This quote is from a relatively unknown African-American coach who grew up in Kansas City, Kan., the late John B. McLendon Jr., and says “Basketball has been a powerful force for understanding and improved race relations in our society.” However, democracy in sports, just like other aspects of American society, often times moves at a painfully slow pace.
When John McLendon was first nominated as a coach deserving to be inducted in the Hall of Fame in 1970, he was the fourth winningest coach in collegiate basketball. He not only played a major role in integrating national tournament competition, he was the first coach to capture three consecutive national championships (1957-59), the first black coach of an integrated professional team (ABL, 1961), the first black coach in the ABA (1969), and an early pioneer of the fast break, the full-court press, and two-in-the corner offense.
For five straight years he was nominated by a host of former players, friends, and colleagues, and each time failed to receive the required votes. Four years later, in 1979, he was inducted alongside Wilt Chamberlain and others, but not as a coach, instead as a “contributor.” Earlier this week, the 2016 Hall of Fame class was announced, and alongside a stellar cast of honorees, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson, Yao Ming, and coach Tom Izzo, McLendon will be inducted posthumously as a coach, and on Sept. 9, he will become the only inductee in the Hall which bears his mentors name as both coach and contributor.
As McLendon dedicated his life to breaking through the bounds of institutional racism for the rights of his players and African-Americans everywhere, I feel immense satisfaction that the Basketball Hall of Fame has now exhibited the moral courage to do the right thing, and the American dream of equality of opportunity is taking a small, but significant step toward becoming a reality because of it.