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2021 Theodore Roosevelt Award: John McLendon

Legendary basketball coach’s influence rings true today on and off the court

History won’t forget legendary basketball coach John McLendon, who will be posthumously honored as the 2021 Theodore Roosevelt Award recipient during this month’s NCAA Convention. The Honors Celebration will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The “Teddy” is the highest honor the NCAA can confer on an individual. It is named after former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose concern for the conduct of intercollegiate athletics led to the formation of the NCAA in 1906.

McLendon, a two-time inductee into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor and later as a coach, is being recognized for his lifetime of work in college basketball, where he is known as a pioneer, and for his innovative approach to the game.

“Working with college students and college athletes really was the place closest to his heart,” said McLendon’s granddaughter Tracey Banks. “To hear that he is the recipient of this award means a great deal to our family.”

McLendon, who died in 1999 at the age of 84, was born in Hiawatha, Kansas, in 1915. He became enthralled with basketball in his childhood. After high school, he attended a junior college in Kansas City, Kansas, where he was a member of the basketball team.

He then transferred to Kansas, where he wasn’t allowed to play on the basketball team due to segregation policies, but he was able to pick the brain of Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and director of athletics at Kansas.

While learning from Naismith, McLendon developed his own coaching strategies and invented the up-tempo style of play that is prevalent today, with pressure defense leading to fast-break offense.

After coaching at the high school level, McLendon went on to coach college basketball at the North Carolina College for Negroes, now known as North Carolina Central (1941-52); Hampton (1953-54); Tennessee A&I, now known as Tennessee State (1955-59); Kentucky State (1964-66); and Cleveland State (1967-69).

McLendon led Tennessee A&I to three consecutive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics championships from 1957 to 1959. When he was hired at Cleveland State, he became the first Black head men’s basketball coach at a predominantly white university.

The Secret Game

One of McLendon’s crowning achievements was helping to organize “The Secret Game” in 1944, when his North Carolina Central team took on an all-white Duke medical school team filled with former college stars in Durham, North Carolina.

In the Jim Crow South, it was against the law for Black and white athletes to compete against one another.

According to The New York Times Magazine, the origins of the game came about when the YMCA chapters at Duke and North Carolina Central began to meet. During one of those gatherings, the subject of basketball came up, and a challenge was issued to see which team was better.

McLendon scheduled the game for a Sunday, when most of Durham’s citizens, including the local police officers, would be attending church services. The Duke medical school players took precautions and took a couple of borrowed cars on a winding route to the North Carolina Central gymnasium.

Once they arrived on the court, the teams lined up to see which team was better. There were no spectators.

The Duke team played in its normal slow-paced style, while McLendon’s team unleashed its high-pressure play. When the final buzzer sounded, McLendon’s squad won “The Secret Game,” 88-44.

The Duke players were more than impressed, and the teams decided to mix up the squads and played games featuring shirts vs. skins. Afterward, the teams mingled in the dorm of the North Carolina Central players and learned more about each other.

No official records were kept, and more importantly, no one was arrested for breaking Jim Crow laws.

One of the Duke players, Jack Burgess, wrote his family in Montana about the experience.

According to The New York Times Magazine, Burgess wrote, “Oh, I wonder if I told you that we played basketball against a Negro college team. Well, we did, and we sure had fun and I especially had a good time, for most of the fellows playing with me were Southerners. … And when the evening was over, most of them had changed their views quite a lot.”

Banks, a law school professor at Wake Forest for the last 18 years and the assistant dean for academic engagement, said her grandfather’s role in “The Secret Game” is an example of what she was always told about him. 

“Even a small group of people doing something that isn’t earth-shattering can make real change,” Banks said. “I tell my kids that all the time. The Duke players were in med school, and when that experience was over, they took out into the world a new understanding that they gained through sports. It demonstrates the kind of power that you can make through sports and through being on teams.”

Her grandfather’s legacy also includes an honor from the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. In 1999, NACDA established the John McLendon Minority Scholarship Foundation, which offers postgraduate scholarships to minority students studying athletics administration.

Former NACDA Executive Director Mike Cleary, who hired McLendon to coach the Cleveland Pipers of the defunct American Basketball League, spurred the creation of the scholarships in McLendon’s name.

“It is always lovely to know that people are thinking of him even now,” Banks said. “This (the Theodore Roosevelt Award) is a collegiate athletics award. His days of working as a college basketball coach are really what you heard him talk about most. That’s where you saw that real sense of accomplishment in him and the things he focused on.”