A Tribute to Coach John McLendon
LAWRENCE, Kan. – Kansas distinguished alum and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame two-time inductee John B. McLendon was honored and recognized by the KU School of Education and Human Sciences and the Department of Health, Sport and Exercise Sciences (HSES) at Robinson Center Friday morning.
The ceremony took place in the main lobby of Robinson Center on the KU campus as more than 60 individuals present saw the unveiling of a plaque recognizing McLendon and his contributions to the University of Kansas, the sport of basketball and his trailblazing of the Civil Rights movement. KU Dean of the School of Education Rick Ginsberg unveiled the plaque with McLendon’s family members present.
Coordinated by Dr. Bernie Kish, who was a lecturer at HSES the for 15 years before retiring in May 2020, the 45-minute ceremony featured Dr. Chris Brown, Director of DEI-Health Sport and Exercise Sciences and the master of ceremonies, HSES professor Joe Weir, Dr. Milton Katz, author of “Breaking Through: John B. McClendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer”, KU men’s basketball coach Bill Self and KU director of athletics Travis Goff.
“We come together to mark the lifetime achievements of a legend,” Ginsberg said. “John McClendon was a leader by any definition of that term. Suffice to say his entire life, he was the first to do many things. His success as a student, as a scholar, as a coach and as a leader inspired so many others who followed him.”
Others present included KU faculty and staff, Kansas athletics coaches and staff and three of the five McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative (MLI) professionals for Kansas Athletics – Isaiah Cole, Chase Hancock and Lucas Iosue. Self was part of the partnership to help launch the MLI.
“It is fair to say that the internationalization of the sport of basketball, which is so prominent today, just look at the NBA and college basketball, it all commenced with John McLendon,” Katz said.
“People such as Coach McLendon helped paved the way for so many opportunities for others,” Self said. “We hear stories all the time of Oscar Robinson and other players that came through the toughest times in America for African-Americans to participate. Coach McLendon was before those. He was the one that gave those guys the opportunity to actually do what they did and if it wasn’t for Coach McLendon, who knows where our sport would be.”
“When you think about honoring Coach McLendon as a trailblazer, in order to be a trailblazer, barriers had to be placed in front of you,” Goff said. “I think trailblazers exist because of lofty, intentional, divisive, strategic barriers placed in front of them. And when you hear the stories that we are reminded of today, I think it’s important to remember we’re right here at the University of Kansas honoring Coach McLendon, the same place that put intentional, divisive, strategic, lofty, incredibly challenging barriers in front of him. The Lawrence community did the same. Our society did that at that time
“When I think about the opportunity today, to not just celebrate and unveil this beautiful plaque, I think about how do we carry forward his legacy in an even more intentional manner,” Goff added. “We have Paul Pierce, the associate athletic director for inclusive excellence, who is doing such exceptional work in moving our department forward. We can say Paul leads our diversity inclusion and equity efforts, but intentionally we describe it as inclusive excellence. And the reason we do that is because we have far from reached inclusive excellence in athletics. We have far from reached inclusive excellence at the University of Kansas and in society. I would challenge all of us to at least have some thought process around the barriers that have been placed in our society and on our campuses for our young people, and in particular our young people of color, from marginalized communities. Let’s use this as an opportunity, as a catalyst, to not just think about removing barriers. It’s not enough to remove barriers. It has to be more intentional. We have to fuel our young peoples’ opportunities ahead and removing barriers isn’t enough anymore. So, let’s remove those barriers. Let’s be intentional. Let’s challenge ourselves, our departments, our university, our community, to be more intentional and to help provide and fuel opportunities in our young people of color in marginalized communities have ever had before.”
The event concluded with Curtis Marsh, associate director of development at KU Endowment, leading the group in the KU Alma Mater.
McLendon was the first African-American college coach elected to the Hall of Fame in 1978 as a contributor. In 2016, McLendon was inducted for the second time being recognized as the first African-American coach in a professional league.
After becoming the first African-American to graduate from KU with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1936, McLendon turned to coaching. Mentored by Dr. James Naismith, who insisted basketball should be played as a fast-break pace, offensively and defensively, McLendon began his 14-year career at North Carolina College in 1938, then later coached at Hampton (Virginia) Institute and Tennessee A&I. While head coach there, his teams won three-consecutive NAIA national titles (1957-58-59). He also coached at Kentucky State, Cleveland State, the National Industrial League and professionally with Cleveland (ABL) and Denver (ABA). He retired in 1969 with a 25-year college mark of 523-165 (.760).
McLendon served as a State Department basketball specialist to Southeast Asia and a consultant to the Virgin Islands and Bahamas basketball federations. He coached the 1964 NAIA Olympic Trials team and the 1973 USA team at the World Basketball Festival in Peru.
He was honored as the NAIA national coach of the year in 1958, and named coach of the decade by the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1956.
While at KU, McLendon integrated the Robinson swimming pool, the junior prom dance and was the first African-American to serve on the Student Council, representing the School of Education.