John McLendon seems to have been forgotten in National Basketball Association and basketball history in general.
McLendon was the first African-American coach of a “major league” basketball team—George Steinbrenner’s Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League—and played a major role in the desegregation of the NBA.
McLendon is part of the Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor but few know of him in 2013.
It was McLendon, who was coaching for North Carolina College for Negroes, who would alert an NBA team to African American players who could play in the league. In 1950, McLendon got the Washington Capitols to try out some players.
“The Washington Capitols were the first team to have historically black schools products on the team. They preceded Boston by one week.” McLendon told me in the mid-1990s. “There were two guys ahead of (the Boston Celtics Chuck) Cooper. Harold Hunter and Earl Lloyd.
“I took them to a tryout in Washington, D.C. They had 20 something guys in there and they put them in threes and no combination could beat these guys. The owner, (Mike) Uline, and the general manager called me upstairs, and said, ‘Hey, coach, get those guys dressed and bring them up here.’ I have a copy of the contract they signed.”
Lloyd made the Capitols, Hunter didn’t. But McLendon said the first two black athletes who actually signed NBA contracts were Hunter and Lloyd with Washington. He said the Celtics signed Cooper after drafting him in the second round of the 1950 Draft a week later.
“I took them, I was there,” McLendon recalled. “I asked the Basketball Hall of Fame just to note five pioneers in the game. They had it up for six months and then took it down because it caused too much controversy. People were arguing about who is the first one, who was the first under contract, the first one on the floor, the first one drafted. The first two in the NBA under a tryout were Harold Hunter and Earl Lloyd.”
Integration finally happened Oct. 31, 1950 when the Washington Capitols’ roster included Lloyd. Years later, Lloyd would downplay the significance of his breaking of the color barrier. Lloyd had a head start on the Knicks’ Sweetwater Clifton, whose contract was purchased from Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters, and Cooper.
McLendon continued coaching at North Carolina College for Negroes. There his team played an all-white Duke University in a “secret game,” which was the first time a negro school played a white school. He moved onto the Hampton Institute and Tennessee State A&I University.
Eventually he would end up as George Steinbrenner’s first professional coach or manager in the American Basketball League. One of McLendon’s players was Dick Barnett and another was Larry Siegfried, who was the only college player of note to sign with the league. Barnett did not come easily as the NBA contested his signing with Cleveland but the ABL prevailed.
McLendon left the team after the first half of the 1961-62 season, winning the Eastern Division title. The ABL split the season into halves and had a championship round during the midway point of the season. Cleveland lost to Kansas City.
McLendon said the ABL was doomed because its schedule was too long and the travel was too great, including games in Hawaii. He presented a solution to the Commissioner. “The Commissioner looked up and said, ‘That’s a great job coach, what’s the next article of business.’”
Shortly after, McLendon, who also had enough of Steinbrenner, quit the Pipers and was on his way to Malaysia and Southeast Asia to teach basketball.
But the short-lived American Basketball League left behind a powerful sports legacy—McLendon, Steinbrenner and the three-point shot.
Evan Weiner can be reached at email@example.com His e-book, “The Business and Politics of Sports, Second Edition” is available at www.bickley.com and Amazon.com and another e-book, “America’s Passion: How a Coal Miner’s Game Became the NFL in the 20th Century,” is available at www.smashwords.com. Weiner was the Academy’s 2010 Ronald Reagan Media Award winner.