🏀 McLendon Classic Kicks Off with Community Event

LAWRENCE, Kan. – Approximately 500 basketball history enthusiasts gathered at the Lied Center on the University of Kansas to learn about KU alum and legendary coach John McLendon Sunday evening. The community event kicked off the McLendon Classic that will conclude when McLendon’s first head coaching position, North Carolina Central, will play at Kansas in men’s basketball Monday evening to kick off the 2023-24 season.

Sunday’s community event started with a screening of Fast Break: The Legendary John McLendon, an approximately hour-long feature on the path McLendon took to become one of the most revered coaches in basketball history. An afro-indigenous who was born in Hiawatha, Kansas and member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, McLendon was the first African-American to graduate KU with a bachelor’s degree in physical education in 1936. While McLendon was at KU, he studied the intricacies of basketball from his mentor, and the inventor of the game, Dr. James Naismith.

A pioneer for the integration of college basketball and the architect behind the fast break and pressure defense, McLendon is a two-time inductee into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978 as a contributor, and again in 2016 as the first African-American coach. McLendon began his head coaching career at what is now known as North Carolina Central, from 1941-1952. His time at NCCU launched an illustrious coaching and activism career for McLendon as his trailblazing efforts led him to become the first African-American coach to win a national tournament in 1954 at Tennessee State, the first African-American head coach at a predominantly white university, and the first African-American to coach the USA Men’s Olympic team in 1968.

Following the showing, there was a round table discussion featuring KU professor and Emmy Award winning director Kevin Willmott, KU director of equity and success initiatives Melissa Peterson, North Carolina Central head coach LeVelle Moton and KU head coach Bill Self. KU professor Shawn Alexander served as moderator to the round table discussion, and the group shared their thoughts about the documentary while telling stories and exploring the impact that McLendon had on the University of Kansas, North Carolina Central, the game of basketball and society at large.

“It’s a bit sentimental to me because not only am I the coach at North Carolina Central, I was a player at North Carolina Central,” Moton said. “I graduated in 1996 and my senior year my coach called me up to his office and said I have a surprise for you. I walked into his office and it was John McLendon. He watched our practice that day and I’m dribbling the ball, keeping an eye on him like if he was recruiting me. Afterward I had a chance to have a one-on-one conversation with him. Not too many times do you get an opportunity to have a one-on-one with someone that you revered.”

“He’s revered. He’s so revered and I think that starts with our leadership,” Moton continued. “It’s so important to keep his legacy alive to people like me and others who understand the history.”

“I always thought I was a historian of our game until I got to Kansas and I realized I knew nothing about the history of our game,” Self said of his time at KU as a graduate assistant in 1985-86 under coach Larry Brown, later returning as KU head coach in 2003. “I would not have known who John McLendon was if it wasn’t for Larry Brown and the amount of respect he had for him. Since we’ve been here the last 20-plus years it’s amazing to me if you really study the history of it, you can’t study the history of it without knowing that James Naismith, Phog Allen, Ralph Miller, Adolph Rupp, Dean Smith and John McLendon all went to school here. To me, that is as good as it gets when you talk about true history.”

The Nov. 6 basketball game will honor McLendon during the contest. Both teams’ coaching staffs will wear patches and feature special pregame shooting shirts. There will be recognitions throughout the contest honoring McLendon as well as moments to highlight current affinity groups at KU that are continuing McLendon’s legacy of inclusion, proactivity and perseverance.


To learn more about the McLendon Foundation, one can go to minorityleaders.org.