Photos courtesy of Joanna McLendon.
Photos courtesy of Joanna McLendon.
On a crisp fall day in 1933, two black men stepped out of a modest middle-class home on Kansas City’s Haskell street. Both were named John B. McLendon. Fifty-one-year-old railroad mail clerk John, Sr. got behind the wheel of his automobile, and 18-year-old John, Jr. slid into the passenger’s seat. Father and son drove west past the meat-packing plants of the “Rattlebone Hollow” neighborhood, pointing the shiny, new DeSoto toward the town of Lawrence, where John the younger was beginning his studies at the University of Kansas. It was an easy enough forty-mile drive.
Decades later, John McLendon, Jr. told his friend and biographer Milton Katz what his father said as he was packing to leave. “Go up there and do what everybody else does, and try to do it in a way that won’t have you getting hurt,” he had told his son. “If you happen to get hurt, let me know. I’ll be up there with my .44.”
The man had reason to fear for the boy. John B. McLendon, Jr. was about to become the first black man to enroll in the physical education program at Kansas.
When they arrived, John, Sr. let his son out of the car, gave a final set of instructions, and drove away. John, Jr. entered Robinson Gymnasium and followed his father’s parting advice to the letter. After a brief search, he found himself standing in an office doorway, looking in at the university’s Director of Physical Education. Dr. James Naismith looked up and examined his unexpected guest. The ice was broken fairly easily, as Milton Katz recounted in Breaking Through, his biography of John McLendon:
[He announced] to this famous man that he was going to major in physical education, that he wanted to learn how to coach basketball, and that he understood that Dr. Naismith would be his advisor. “Who told you this?” Naismith inquired. “My father,” answered McLendon. “Come on in, fathers are always right,” Naismith declared.
Dr. Naismith had first nailed peach baskets to balconies at the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA in 1891. In 1959, long after the great man had died, his name would grace the Basketball Hall of Fame in that same city. The nervous freshman in his office would eventually be called the “Father of Black Basketball” by Julius Erving. The two held many one-on-one talks about life and basketball, and it was during one such chat that Naismith expressed a life-changing theory to McLendon. “He said the ultimate game is to attack wherever the ball is and let your offense begin wherever you get the ball.” At a time when slow-down basketball was a painful reality, Naismith’s pupil took his mentor’s words to heart, creating the fast break and the full-court press and using them to win a high school championship as a twenty-year-old student teacher.
“They really became friends,” Katz told me during a phone conversation in 2010. “John actually said that he felt special under Naismith’s tutelage. I don’t think that was just bravado; he really felt that Naismith cared a lot about him. He thought McLendon was special.”
Black athletes were playing for Clair Bee at Long Island University by 1933, but KU didn’t put a black player on the court until LaVannes Squires joined the team in 1952. McLendon admitted to Katz that skin color wasn’t the only obstacle standing between him and a spot on the Jayhawks—though quick and cerebral, McLendon had been cut from his high school basketball team three times. He was a former lifeguard and an excellent swimmer, though, and he expected to ace the mandatory swimming test required for his degree. But when McLendon showed up at the on-campus pool to work out, he found it half empty. He was told it was drained every Wednesday.
McLendon came back on Thursday, and found the pool empty again. Nobody had told him the pool was segregated, perhaps because no colored student had tried to swim there before. The school’s passive-aggressive trick exposed a weakness he could exploit—a fear of direct confrontation. “You’re going to have a pretty big water bill,” McLendon told the attendant. “Because I’m going swimming every day.”
Faced with McLendon’s intransigence, university administration tried another indirect tack, offering to waive the swimming requirement based on his demonstrated proficiency as a former lifeguard. McLendon refused the poisoned fruit, adhering to his father’s insistence that he earn his degree by doing what everyone else did, while simultaneously flaunting his injunction against risking bodily harm.
McLendon didn’t ask anyone to share his fight for equal rights, but help came nonetheless. A white classmate circulated a petition and gathered over 1,000 signatures in support of “mixed swimming.” Other physical education students arranged to meet John at the pool and work out with him in a show of solidarity. When things got testy, professor Naismith detailed a pair of intimidating football players to guard the Robinson pool during John’s aquatic training. Tensions rose.
“Naismith was a very religious person, very liberal in his thinking, and a pure humanitarian, but for him to take McLendon under his wing I think was pretty extraordinary,” Katz told me. “The fact that [McLendon] was the first African-American student in the PE program really meant a lot to Naismith. In that way, the color of his skin really did matter, and it was a positive thing.”
Still the situation escalated. While walking across campus one day, John spotted a hand-lettered sign: “Do not swim with the nigger.” John pulled that one down and collected several more that he found in the area and took them directly to Dr. Naismith. His mentor gathered up the offending propaganda and took it with him as he visited the university’s chancellor and president in turn. His message to both men was simple and direct: if he ever saw another hateful sign on campus, he would resign immediately and seek employment elsewhere.
The threat worked. McLendon was allowed to meet with athletic director (and head basketball coach) Forrest “Phog” Allen to negotiate for the rights of black students who wanted to swim in the pool. Civil disobedience had brought his crusade to the attention of KU’s most powerful men, and McLendon resolved to close the deal peacefully. When Allen stated—perhaps a bit disingenuously—that he hesitated to integrate the pool out of concern for McLendon’s safety, the younger man had a ready answer: Open the pool to mixed swimming for two weeks, and if nothing untoward occurred during that time, the pool would be open to all. Allen agreed to the terms.
McLendon met with the other sixty-odd black students at KU and explained his plan: Stay away from the pool for two more weeks, and we can have it forever. When the two weeks passed quietly, Allen called McLendon a “smart-aleck” but lived up to his promise. The pool was open to all students from that day forward.
John McLendon wasn’t done side-slipping racism by any means. He crashed the segregated spring dance with his future wife so they could dance to the music of black bandleader Andy Kirk and His Twelve Clouds of Joy. McLendon’s popularity on campus grew to the point that he became the first black enrollee elected to student council in 1936.
After graduation, he took his first coaching job at North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central) in Durham. He arranged the now legendary “secret game” in 1944, pitting his CIAA-Champion Eagles against an all-white Duke Medical School team that claimed to be the best in the state. The Eagles used McLendon’s pioneering press and fast break to destroy the challengers 88-44. “The final score in the NCAA championship game that year was 44-42,” Katz noted. McLendon then split the sides into integrated teams and had them work together. NCC player George Parks would later recall it fondly as “Just God’s children, horsing around with a basketball.”
McLendon went on to coach a three-peat NAIA national champion at Tennessee State, broke the color barrier as a head coach with the George Steinbrenner-owned Cleveland Pipers in the short-lived American Basketball League, and served a short but historically relevant stint at the helm of the ABA’s Denver Rockets in 1969. McLendon claimed that Rockets management had a secret quota—six white players and six black players—for the team makeup, a charge the team’s GM later denied. When McLendon was fired after just 28 games, however, two black players he had signed were cut the very same day.
Naismith’s desire to promote social and spiritual advancement through sporting achievement was a life-long avocation. He took delight in the knowledge that his game had diversified and spread to exotic locales like Cuba, Turkey, Jamaica and China. He actively encouraged women to play, claiming that a group of teachers who watched his first YMCA classes subsequently sought, and obtained, his blessing to start the first women’s team. He met his wife Maude at an 1892 women’s tournament in which she was a star player. He wrote about how much he enjoyed watching Native American students play at Lawrence’s Haskell Institute. According to Rob Rains’ biography James Naismith, The Man Who Invented Basketball, Naismith sent a letter to his wife while stationed in France during World War I, in which he wrote “The human heart in a black or white skin wants to see right prevail.” He wasn’t talking specifically about basketball, but the sentiment—exceedingly rare in the early twentieth century—reveals something about the man who wrote it.
McLendon eventually coached an NCAA team at Cleveland State University, where the arena bears his name, and represented his country as an assistant coach of the 1972 Olympic basketball team. His long-overdue induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame came in 1979, just twenty years before his death. That same year, he finally got a call from Kansas, and the 54-year-old returned to his old stomping grounds to receive the school’s Alumni Citation of Merit. It read, with maddening understatement: “This man, more than anyone else, is responsible for the integration of swimming and swimming pool programs at the University of Kansas.”