John McLendon is a historical connection between Duke and Kansas
The Hall of Fame coach was a mentee to James Naismith and the orchestrator of the ‘secret game,’ one of the first integrated sporting events in the Jim Crow South
Duke versus Kansas is one of those matchups that feels like a rivalry despite technically not being one.
The two programs have only met 13 times before Tuesday’s matchup at the Champions Classic in Indianapolis (9:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), with the most recent game taking place in 2019 when No. 4 Duke edged out No. 3 Kansas 68-66 at the Champions Classic in New York City.
Save for a 102-77 Duke blowout of Kansas in 1989 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the series has been decided on average by just more than five points per game. Not to mention, six games have taken place in the NCAA tournament, two in the Final Four, and the teams have met once in the national championship, where the Blue Devils prevailed, 72-65, in 1991 for the first of back-to-back championships.
But while the teams’ respective histories are long and accomplished (they’ve claimed nine national titles and a combined 128 regular-season and tournament conference championships), what’s less known about the programs are their shared history as it pertains to the evolution and racial integration of college basketball. This history involves the inventor of basketball, a historically Black college, and … John Calipari.
And all those interconnected strings lead back to one man: John McLendon.
“At every turn — even as a 19-, 20-year-old young man — he [McLendon] was demonstrating what it means to truly be a trailblazer.”
— Kansas athletic director Travis Goff
McLendon, the first college basketball coach to win three consecutive national championships and a “first” in nearly a dozen other areas, was born in 1915 in Hiawatha, Kansas, a small town of less than 4,000 people located 90 miles northwest of Kansas City.
After a visit to a junior high school basketball gym while still a little kid, McLendon went home and told his family not that he wanted to be a basketball player, but rather a basketball coach. After graduating from Sumner High School in Kansas City, Kansas, McLendon had visions of traveling up north to Massachusetts to attend Springfield College, where he learned about this guy who invented the game he loved so much.
That man was James Naismith, who created the game of basketball in 1891 at a local YMCA.
McLendon’s family didn’t have the money to send him up north, but his father found out that Naismith wasn’t even in Massachusetts anymore. Instead, Naismith had settled down right there in Kansas, first as the coach at the University of Kansas and later as its athletic director.
The elder McLendon instructed his young Black son … in the 1930s … in segregated Kansas… to just walk into Naismith’s office, introduce himself and tell the father of basketball that he would be McLendon’s mentor. Surprisingly, Naismith agreed to do it.
“What baffles me is how a Black man in the ’40s became a mentee to James Naismith. I’m perplexed at that. That’s crazy,” North Carolina Central men’s basketball coach LeVelle Moton told Andscape. “Why’d he choose this Black dude? This is Jim Crow, segregation, pre-Brown v. Board of Education.”
McLendon, who died in 1999, credited Naismith with teaching him everything there is to know about basketball.
“Everything I did when I was coaching, I can trace back to learning from him,” McLendon said, according to his biographer, Milton Katz.
Foreshadowing his trailblazing work as a Black basketball coach, McLendon got an education in Jim Crow-era racism while learning his craft under Naismith.
McLendon was barred from participating in all-white varsity athletics at Kansas, getting cut multiple times by the men’s basketball coach at the time, fellow Naismith mentee Forrest “Phog” Allen. The Big Six conference (now the Big 12) wouldn’t be integrated until a decade after McLendon arrived in Lawrence, Kansas.
Instead, McLendon integrated the university’s Robinson Center swimming pool, its junior prom, and he was the first Black member of the student council.
“At every turn — even as a 19-, 20-year-old young man — he was demonstrating what it means to truly be a trailblazer,” Kansas director of athletics Travis Goff told Andscape.
McLendon took a few of Naismith’s academic courses at Kansas (Naismith was an associate professor of physical culture), and during a walk one day, took an innocuous statement by Naismith about children constantly running around during pickup games and turned it into an entire offensive strategy, according to the book The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James.
McLendon is credited as creating the concept of the fast-break offense, which eschews slow, set plays for sprinting up the court to control tempo and beat teams up the court before they can set their defenses. On the defensive side, McLendon is also credited with inventing the full-court press, a strategy that also depends on aggressiveness and speed to prevent offenses from setting up.
Those strategies have lasted over the decades, from the Phoenix Suns’ “seven seconds or less” offense in the mid-2000s to how teams revert to the full-court press to slow down modern-day high-octane offenses.
“He’s basically pioneered and ushered in the wave of basketball as we know it today: the fast-break offense, pressing full court, getting up and down,” Moton said. “That’s him.”
In 1936, McLendon became the first Black graduate to obtain a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kansas in physical education. After graduation, he landed a job as an assistant basketball coach at historically Black North Carolina College, which was located in Durham, North Carolina, before becoming head coach in 1940.
There, unleashing his uptempo offense and defense, McLendon became one of the most successful coaches from a historically Black college or university (HBCU) in history, winning eight Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association (now the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association) titles while at North Carolina College from 1940 to 1952, and later three consecutive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) championships from 1957 to 1959 while coaching at historically Black Tennessee State, becoming the first Black coach to win a national championship.
But like most of the American South during that time, segregation was the name of the game in college basketball.
Teams composed of Black players, of course, existed at HBCUs, but those schools, mostly concentrated in the South, were barred from participation in the major college sports governing bodies and tournaments, the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (later renamed the NAIA), the NCAA, and the NIT. A Black person didn’t play in a major postseason tournament until 1948, when Indiana State Teachers College, coached by John Wooden, played guard Clarence Walker in the National Association for Intercollegiate Basketball tournament. Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark Supreme Court case that ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional, wouldn’t be argued for more than a decade after McLendon was hired by North Carolina College.
It was against this backdrop that McLendon pulled off the “secret game,” considered one of the first integrated sporting events in the Jim Crow South.
As the 28-year-old head coach of North Carolina College (now named North Carolina Central University, or NCCU), McLendon helped organize an exhibition game between his all-Black team and the all-white, ragtag bunch of former college basketball players who made up the intramural team from Duke’s medical school, cobbled together due to World War II requiring armed forces training programs located at Duke University.
The two groups had already been secretly meeting together at the local YMCA for prayer meetings, but during one such gathering, a challenge was issued to see which of Durham’s teams was actually the best.
McLendon, normally averse to conflict, endorsed the idea: North Carolina College, which had gone 19-1 during the 1943-44 season, had once again been denied an invitation to the major tournaments, so he figured he’d create his own championshiplike contest.
The two teams scheduled the game for March 12, 1944, when most of Durham’s citizens — including its police force — would be at church. McLendon hadn’t even told the North Carolina College administration about the game.
That was because there was considerable risk from going against the Jim Crow grain: A few months after the game, Booker T. Spicely, a private in the Army, was fatally shot in the head by a white bus driver after refusing to move to the back of a segregated Durham bus.
So the white players from Duke, using borrowed cars, sneaked onto the North Carolina College campus, and the game took place behind the locked doors of the school’s gym.
(The original gym that the “secret game” was played in later became the party spot for NCCU students. “We called it the Sweatbox,” said Moton, who played at NCCU from 1992 to 1996.)
It was the first time some of the players had played against other races.
“I had never played basketball against a white person before, and I was a little shaky,” Aubrey Stanley, a 16-year-old guard on North Carolina College, told the New York Times in 1996. “You did not know what might happen if there was a hard foul, or if a fight broke out. I kept looking over at [Henry] Big Dog [Thomas] and [James] Boogie [Hardy] to see what to do. They were both from up North.”
But no such conflict ever arose. The Duke team got off to a nice start, but by the time North Carolina College started getting out on the break, it became pretty clear that the medical school players were mid.
“About midway through the first half I suddenly realized: ‘Hey, we can beat these guys. They aren’t supermen. They’re just men like us,’ ” Stanley said.
North Carolina College won with relative ease 88-44.
After the game, the teams mixed players from the two schools and ran it back. Somehow in the span of a Sunday afternoon, basketball schools from an HBCU and a wartime medical school solved the country’s racial problem by simply looking at one another as equals, as basketball players.
According to a white player on the Duke team, most of his teammates changed their views on race and Black people that day.
Even though a reporter from The Carolina Times, a Black newspaper in Durham, knew about the game, he agreed to not publish the story to protect McLendon and his team. No other newspaper was aware of the game, until 52 years later, in March 1996, when historian and Duke graduate Scott Ellsworth wrote a New York Times article detailing the “secret game” for the first time.
The “secret game” served as an unknown harbinger of integration in collegiate basketball, preceding integrated Loyola-Chicago’s “Game of Change” win over a segregated Mississippi State team during the 1963 NCAA tournament, and Texas Western, with an all-Black starting five, defeating all-white Kentucky for the 1966 national championship.
“They were wanting, and willing, to sacrifice and put a lot on the line to have a contest, to have a game of competition between a white institution and a Black institution of higher learning.”— Tommy Amaker on North Carolina College vs. Duke
Harvard men’s basketball coach Tommy Amaker, who played at Duke from 1983 to 1987 and served as a Blue Devils assistant coach from 1988 to 1997, first learned about the rumors of the “secret game” well before it was published in 1996.
There had been rumblings and rumors across Durham for years, some of which turned out to not be true, like the game being played in the midnight hours when it was actually played on a Sunday morning.
“So, you’re either going to have it when people are in church or when people are asleep,” Amaker told Andscape. In 2020, Amaker was named co-chair of the McLendon Minority Leadership Initiative (MLI), an initiative to increase the number of minority students in college athletics jobs, alongside Calipari, the Kentucky men’s basketball coach.
The game took place during a period of time when integration in basketball didn’t exist, when the possible consequences (death) far outweighed the benefits (racial harmony).
“They were wanting, and willing, to sacrifice and put a lot on the line to have a contest, to have a game of competition between a white institution and a Black institution of higher learning,” Amaker said.
Education was very important for the McLendon family.
Tracey Banks, an associate professor of legal research and writing at the Wake Forest University School of Law and the granddaughter of McLendon, said that the pursuit of education was baked into everything growing up. She learned from her grandfather and others that to accomplish what you wanted to do in life, it would start with an education. She also learned that sports could be a gateway to that goal.
But there was just one problem.
“I was not blessed with athletic ability,” Banks told Andscape.
Regardless, Banks found her purpose in the education field, helping others, which is what her family, and in particular McLendon, strove for.
When Banks is in Durham, she runs into many people who say they know and respect her grandfather.
“To see that kind of impact and hear about it on a professional and personal level is, I think for me, been a model of the kind of work that I try to do,” Banks said. “So that when I’m working with law students, that they know that I’m going to help them develop the skill set that they need to enter the profession, but also investing in them as the people that they are, the leaders they’re going to be.”
That is evident in the creation of the MLI, a program launched in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police and the subsequent global protests, to provide minority students in college sports administration practical work experience on college campuses.
The MLI is housed within the John McLendon Foundation, founded in 1999, which also supports the McLendon Minority Postgraduate Scholarship, a $10,000 postgraduate studies award for those studying in athletic administration. Recipients of the foundation scholarship include UCLA athletic director Martin Jarmond, former Phoenix Suns executive and ESPN personality Amin Elhassan, and Harraway, the foundation’s director and a vice president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics.
The goal of the MLI is to increase the number of people of color in athletic administration positions, a direct reflection of McLendon’s core values of education, integrity, leadership and mentorship.
“He [McLendon] saw education as a way to move forward, progress forward, especially for underrepresented communities,” said Harraway, who as a student and football player at Northern Iowa was chosen as a McLendon scholar in 2003.
Black college athletes are 52.8% of Division I men’s basketball players, 40.7% of women’s basketball players, and 44.6% of football players, and yet, according to the the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida College of Business, Black people make up:
- 12.2% of Division I athletic directors
- 10% of associate athletic directors
- 8.7% of assistant athletic directors
- 20% of conference commissioners (that number can be misleading, as there are only 10 conferences)
- 8.1% of faculty athletics representatives
- 3.6% of sports information directors
Those numbers are similar or barely higher from the 2005 report on college sports administration diversity.
“How do we become more diverse with people of color in head coaching positions? Well, we have to find out the pathway of who’s making those decisions,” said Amaker.
Bill Self, head coach of the Kansas men’s basketball team, became an MLI ambassador right out of the gate, directing his own funds to the initiative. The two-time national champion was attracted to the MLI because he believes in leveling the playing field in administrative jobs so “it’s no longer just powerful white men running organizations.” He also believes it’s important for universities to support their own, in this case McLendon.
“If something’s done to honor Wilt Chamberlain, we need to be a part of that. If something’s done to honor Danny Manning, we need to be a part of that,” Self told Andscape, referring to the two former All-American Kansas basketball players.
Not coincidentally, Kansas has housed more “future leaders” from the MLI (six) than any other school in the nation.
“We’re not going to dabble or stick our toe in there, we’re going to go in on this right out of the gate,” Goff said. “We’re going to commit to it and invest. And then we’re going to learn what a great experience looks like so that we can evolve in that.”
Other coaches involved in the MLI include men’s and women’s basketball coaches Geno Auriemma (UConn), Patrick Ewing (Georgetown), and Moton (NCCU), and football coaches Kirby Smart (Georgia), Nick Saban (Alabama) and Dave Aranda (Baylor).
For Moton, who was hired as coach at NCCU in 2010, the MLI and McLendon represent what he got into coaching for: as a moral obligation and social responsibility to help others. McLendon was a hero to Moton, and he and other Black coaches such as Clarence “Big House” Gaines paved the way for him, so the least Moton can do is pave the way for those behind him.
“For me it’s not why, it’s why not?” he answered when asked why he decided to be involved in the MLI.
McLendon, who became the first person inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a contributor (1979) and coach in 2016, had the honor — and one could argue, the burden — of being the first: The first Black man to coach a professional team (the Cleveland Pipers of the NIBL and later the American Basketball League). The first Black man to coach at a predominantly white institution (Cleveland State University). The first Black man to serve on an American Olympic basketball staff, coaching under longtime Oklahoma State head coach Hank Iba during the 1968 and 1972 games.
And those firsts — coupled with being mentored by the father of basketball and helping organize one of the first integrated college basketball games in the South — made it possible for future Black coaches, who in 2021 made up 24.3% of all Division I men’s basketball coaches, which is a long way away from when Will Robinson became the first Black basketball coach at a Division I school in 1970.
“True legacy is what you ultimately leave that affects or impacts long after you leave, and that’s what he’s done, especially for me, especially, I’m sure, for [Marquette men’s basketball coach Shaka Smart] and every other Black coach out here,” Moton said. “He took the butt whuppings so we wouldn’t have to take them and made life easier.”