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.”
McLendon’s teams were known for their fast break and high-scoring style. His North Carolina College and Hampton teams were the highest scoring college teams in the country 10 times from 1940-54, and North Carolina College set second-half scoring record with 67 points against Shaw in 1944.
McLendon learned the philosophy of fast-break basketball as a student at the University of Kansas, where he majored in physical education and, in 1936, became the school’s first black student to receive a degree in that discipline. His instructor: Dr. James A. Naismith, the man who invented basketball.
McLendon told Sports View magazine in a 1993 interview that Naismith “never drew Xs and Os, but he had ideas about moving before the defense could set up.”
Thus was born the fast break offense, which is still around today.
By the time McLendon arrived at Tennessee State, he had refined fast-break basketball to an art. The Tigers used man-to-man pressure defense to fuel their running game that eventually wore down their opponents. Legend has it that one of McLendon’s North Carolina College teams ran so much in one game that the referee called time-out.
“They shot quick, and they played a lot of defense,” says former Alcorn State coach Davey Whitney, a McLendon mentee whose teams at Burt High in Clarksville, Tennessee scrimmaged against Tennessee State. “They were high level. It was tough playing them. It was a lot of quality there. He had a good frontcourt offense too, as quiet as it’s kept. They had a lot of shooters.”
Attles says playing against Tennessee State “was a war.” He recalls that during time-outs, he and his Aggie teammate would repeatedly say to each other, “Don’t put your hands on your hips like you’re tired.”
“If they saw you were tired, they really turned it up a notch,” Attles says.
Major college coaches criticized McLendon’s fast break style, calling it street ball and unorganized. That wasn’t the case. Even though the Tigers played up-tempo, they played with discipline and didn’t take wild shots.
Barnett says their shot frequency depended on the score and how much time was left in the game, among other factors.
“He revolutionized the game,” Barnett says. “We were running, pressing, speeding the game up. When other people were trying to hold the ball, he was speeding it. Coach McLendon was a disciplinarian. You had to be in tip-top condition. You had to be able to run and play defense. You had to be an all-round player with the type attitude he displayed. He was very understated, but very forthright in his determination to be successful. I call him the iron fist in a velvet glove. He was very understated, but very determined to help young men be successful on the court and beyond.”
McLendon had a star-studded lineup during the national championship years at Tennessee State. Barnett, who was selected fourth overall by the Syracuse Nationals in the 1959 NBA draft and played 14 with them, the Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks, was the Tigers’ star. Ben Warley, John “Rabbit” Barnhill and Joe Buckhalter were other Tennessee State players from those teams who went on to play in the NBA.
“He had great teams and great players,” says Attles, who was headed to Tennessee State, but decided to go to North Carolina A&T because the Tigers wanted him to play football, too.
McLendon had just one losing record during his college career. His teams won 20 or more games 10 times. Tennessee State was 94-8 from 1957-59, including 32-1 during the 1958-59 season.
“During the era we played in, race was a major factor, and there was belief that somehow if players weren’t in the NIT or NCAA (tournaments), they had inferior skills,” he told Sports View. “We thought we were the best team in the country.