College basketball coaches Bill Self of Kansas and LeVelle Moton of North Carolina Central, whose teams will tangle at 7 p.m. Monday at Allen Fieldhouse in the season opener for both squads, took part in a unique kind of film session — one without their own players — Sunday night at the Lied Center.
They joined a crowd of about 500 individuals on KU’s West Campus to watch a screening of Lawrence native Kevin Willmott’s award winning documentary, “Fast Break: The Legendary John McLendon” to kick off the inaugural two-day McLendon Classic in Lawrence.
At the conclusion of the documentary, Self, Moton and Willmott were joined on the Lied Center stage with KU director of equity and success initiatives Melissa Peterson and moderator/KU professor Shawn Alexander to discuss the work of McLendon, a KU graduate who was the first Black coach to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (as a contributor in 1979 then again as coach in 2016).
A native of Hiawatha, Kansas, and member of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, McLendon, who studied under the game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith at KU, was the first Black person to graduate from Kansas with a degree in physical education (1936).
He was the first coach in history to win three consecutive NAIA championships — at Tennessee State from 1957-59.
McLendon, who also was head coach at Monday’s foe, North Carolina Central, as well as Kentucky State, Hampton and Cleveland State, was the first Black person to serve as assistant coach on the USA Men’s Olympic basketball team (1968).
He was the first Black professional basketball coach (Cleveland Pipers, ABL, 1961) and first Black coach to serve as assistant coach in the NBA (Denver Nuggets, 1969).
“When you stop and think about it, coach (Dean) Smith (KU graduate and North Carolina coaching legend) gets credit for the Four Corners. He credited it to coach McLendon,” Self said.
McLendon, who died in 1999 at the age of 84, also invented the fast break in basketball.
“The way teams play trying to be as sound as they can and score and shoot the ball as fast as they can is exactly the way coach (McLendon) saw the game, what, 70 years ago?” Self said Sunday night. “We as coaches, we are all thieves in that we all steal from others. Nobody has stolen more from any coach than we have from coach McLendon. I don’t know if there’s a bigger honor a coach can be recognized for. We coaches all do little deals that are just gadgets. What coach McLendon did was changed how the game was played.”
Former KU coach Larry Brown said in Willmott’s documentary that he used something from McLendon’s playbook in virtually every practice he ran during his career.
North Carolina Central coach Moton, who starred as a player at the Durham, North Carolina, school that will meet KU Monday night, told the 500 folks in attendance that he had only one request when school officials asked if he was OK with having his jersey hung in the NCCU arena rafters. He said school officials would have to make sure a banner honoring McLendon was twice the size of his own banner.
“In hosting this event (with) North Carolina Central, we get an opportunity to honor one of the greatest coaches our sport has ever known, John McLendon,” Self said. “We want to create awareness for the McLendon Foundation leadership initiative on our campus and in our building playing an HBCU institution associated with the great John McLendon.”
Coaches from both teams on Monday night will wear patches honoring McLendon, and the players will wear special pregame shooting shirts in honor of McLendon.
“The significance of playing a game that is kind of new in theory with the McLendon Foundation and basically honoring coach McLendon who obviously is a KU graduate — in a way that brings attention to him and his family and brings attention to his foundation and initiative — is very positive,” Self said.
Information on the McLendon Foundation, which is designed to “provide minorities access and opportunity through its scholarship program and leadership initiative” is available online at minorityleaders.org/.
“We talk so much around here and we should about Dr. Naismith and Phog Allen and Ralph Miller and Dean Smith and Larry Brown and Roy Williams, all the ones who have been so successful that have coached here. He (McLendon) is a guy that didn’t coach here, didn’t even play here, and he’s a two-time Naismith (Hall of Fame) inductee and invented the fast break,” Self said. “He is probably as well-respected as any African-American leader in our profession going all the way back. There have been so many. He is certainly at the top of that list as well.
“I think it is great we are doing this. It is something we look forward to continue doing through the years.”
Donations made at Sunday’s event were to support the NCCU Black Student-Athlete Summit Experience Fund.
Of his years as a student at KU, McLendon once told the New York Times: “Dr. Naismith taught me far more than was found in textbooks. Very often he would put aside his books and teach us lessons in life from his world experiences. And that always included how he happened to invent the game of basketball in 1891.
“There’s no question that my life would not have been anywhere near what it has become if I had not had Dr. Naismith as my adviser.”