This undated photo shows Tennessee State basketball coach John McClendon being celebrated by his players.
Better late than never is Dr. Dick Barnett’s philosophy.
That’s why the former NBA star is spearheading a campaign to have the 1957-59 Tennessee State basketball teams of which he was a member and John McLendon, their coach, enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Tennessee State, which celebrates its centennial this year, stepped into history in 1957 when it won the NAIA Championship and became the first HBCU to win a national title. The Tigers made more history when they won crowns in 1958 and ’59 to become the first college team to win three consecutive national championships.
“That should have occurred 40 or 50 years ago,” Barnett says, referring to the Hall of Fame enshrinement of McLendon and his teams. “It’s a no-brainer.”
Barnett, MVP of the NAIA Finals in 1957 and ’58, plans to take his case to the public with a traveling exhibit that will visit HBCU campuses in 2013 for the purpose of “telling the story and debunking generational ignorance and contrived denial of the unprecedented accomplishment of TSU’s greatness as a college basketball power.”
The campaign tips off during Tennessee State’s homecoming this fall, with an exhibit at the Millennium Maxwell House Hotel. The exhibit is billed as “a celebration in pictures, live words, print, video and actual observations of the historical feat of the first team in college basketball history to win three consecutive national championships.”
A film documentary is also planned.
McLendon, a master innovator who died in 1999 at age 84, was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in 1979 for his contributions to the game. His innovations, many of which changed the way basketball is played to this day, include the four-corners offense that Dean Smith popularized in the 1970s and ’80s when he coached at the University of North Carolina, the fast break and the zone press.
McLendon’s supporters say his coaching credentials – compiled during the height of segregation and Jim Crow laws, when opportunities for blacks were limited – are unquestioned and warrant his enshrinement for these achievements on the sidelines as well. He compiled a 523-165 record for a .762 winning percentage in 22 seasons at North Carolina College (now North Carolina Central) Hampton, Tennessee State, Kentucky State and Cleveland State, where he became the first black coach at a non-HBCU.
He also coached the Cleveland Pipers, an American Basketball League franchise owned by future New Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, and the Denver Rockets of the ABA, who later became the Denver Nuggets.
All of which, McLendon’s supporters say, should have gained him entry into the coaches’ wing of the Hall long ago.
“I’ve always said there are a number of people who deserve to be in based on their contributions,” says Golden State Warriors front office executive Al Attles, who played against McLendon’s teams when he starred at North Carolina A&T in the late 1950s. “Not many people know that much about him. It’s a difficult elimination process, and sometimes people fall through the cracks. When you look at the depth of his work and the breadth of his work, it’s unfortunate.”
In addition to winning three national championships at Tennessee State, McLendon won the CIAA Tournament – an event he helped found – twice at North Carolina College. He won the Midwest Athletic Association championship and the NAIA District 29 championship twice each at Tennessee State. Three years prior to leading Tennessee State to its first national championship, McLendon guided the Tigers to the championship of the NAIA Tip-off Tournament. It was the first time an HBCU participated in a national invitation tournament.
McLendon scored an even greater victory before the start of the tournament, which was played in downtown Kansas City. He refused to compete in the tournament unless his team could stay in the same hotel as the white teams. Tournament officials relented, and downtown Kansas City was integrated.
“It’s unbelievable, the things that he did,” Attles says. “You wonder what the process is or what it takes to acknowledge a person like Coach McLendon. He was successful at every level. He was just a great basketball man. I hope it will be rectified, and that he will get in (the Hall of Fame) as more than a contributor. We have to get away from isolating conferences and look at depth and breadth of his accomplishments. I hope the powers-that-be would recognize that.”