To learn more about my e-book, The Crossover: A Brief History of Basketball and Race, from James Naismith to LeBron James, click here. It includes this essay plus much more.
Fast Break Basketball: How a Black Coach Revolutionized the Game
By Doug Merlino
The fast break—whether it’s Rajon Rondo dropping a no-look dish to Paul Pierce or Derrick Rose setting up Joakim Noah with a lob—is basketball’s signature play, a few moments in the open court when all the game’s improvisational qualities come pulsing to life.
On the surface, the play would seem a long ways from the game James Naismith invented in 1891. But it’s perhaps the founder’s final contribution to basketball, a product of his mentoring late in life of an African-American student named John McLendon.
In fact, in the development of the fast break we not only see the ways that basketball has been able to cross racial divides, but also the grand absurdity and human cost of America’s policies of segregation.
John McLendon was born in 1915 in the town of Hiawatha, Kan., to an African-American father and a Delaware Indian mother. From the time he saw his first game at the age of 10, he became obsessed with basketball.
After playing in high school, McLendon decided he wanted to pursue a career in coaching and physical education. When he read that Naismith had invented the game at Springfield College in Massachusetts, McLendon resolved that was where he wanted to study.
Fortunately, McLendon’s father learned that there was no need to go so far: At the time, Naismith was only 40 miles away at the University of Kansas, where he’d been teaching since 1898. McLendon enrolled as the first black student in the school’s physical education department.
He recounted that when he arrived on campus in 1933, he walked into Naismith’s office and informed him that he was Naismith’s new advisee.
Naismith asked who had decided that. McLendon said, “My father.”
“Come on in,” Naismith answered. “Fathers are always right.”
The young African-American man and the progenitor of basketball, then in his 70s, hit it off, becoming something of a hoops version of Mr. Miyagi and the Karate Kid.
“Naismith didn’t draw any plays. He talked about the essence of the game,” McLendon later said. “I used to go over to his house at night to talk about basketball and life. I even used to mow his lawn.”
McLendon took several of Naismith’s classes in subjects such as anatomy and kinesiology. Naismith also tried to guide McLendon through the harsh racial climate of the time. When one of McLendon’s professors made a bigoted joke at the start of a class, McLendon walked out. When he told Naismith about it, the older man said he shouldn’t let other people’s ignorance stop him from achieving what he wanted.
One day when they were out and about, Naismith and McLendon stopped to watch some kids playing basketball. As they chased the ball around the court, Naismith commented that it was the ultimate way to play the game—to always be on the attack on offense and defense, wherever the ball is.
“I patterned my whole game after that philosophy,” McLendon said.
Though McLendon found respite in his relationship with Naismith, the University of Kansas in the 1930s was not an easy place to be black. The basketball team, coached by the legendary Forrest “Phog” Allen, was all-white.
That didn’t stop McLendon from trying out, but he was cut each time. Later, McLendon led a successful campaign—with Naismith’s support—to desegregate the campus swimming pool so that blacks and whites could use it at the same time.
After graduation in 1936, McLendon landed a job as an assistant basketball coach in Durham at the North Carolina College, which was all-black. He became head coach in 1940, a year after Naismith died.
McLendon, though, based his coaching style on the lessons he’d imbibed from his mentor.
First, following on Nasimith’s core principles, McLendon believed that basketball was to be used as a tool to help develop discipline and character. Or, as he told his players, they were free to use the whole alphabet, as long as they avoided the “Three Ws”—wine, weed and women.
McLendon also expanded on Naismith’s idea of attack on offense and defense by designing a system based around constant movement. As McLendon imagined it, the game was played baseline to baseline, with aggressive defense and the ball getting pushed up-court on offense.
McLendon as the coach of the Denver Rockets in 1969.
The plan was for a shot to be taken once every eight seconds.
McLendon believed this style was not only more effective at scoring points, but more fun for everyone—the players, coaches and spectators. Practices, however, were a different matter, as McLendon sent his players through punishing conditioning regimes.
The coach developed a platoon system, moving players in and out of the game so that constant pressure could be kept on the other team. During one game, McLendon’s team ran so much that the referees had to call a timeout in order to catch their breaths.
The techniques were immediately successful—in 1941, McLendon’s first year as head coach, North Carolina College won the Negro National College Championship Tournament.
This was also part of the problem—under the logic of segregation in the South, black and white college teams could not even play each other. As a result, the historically black colleges of the South were the only places African-American players could compete, and African-American coaches could coach.
It also meant that white teams could maintain an attitude of superiority as they never had to play against black teams.
In 1944, this situation led to one of the more bizarre happenings in basketball history. After contact had been made between McLendon’s North Carolina College team—which had gone 19-1 that season—and an intramural white team made up of students at the Duke Medical School, many of whom were former college players, the two squads agreed to a game.
Under segregation, though, such a match was illegal. If they were found out, it could cause serious trouble for both sides.
The game was arranged to be played at North Carolina College’s gym on a Sunday morning, when most of the town would be in church. The Duke team took a circuitous route through town to avoid being followed, and, after they arrived, held their coats over their heads as they entered the gym. McLendon had the doors locked behind them.
As the game started, both sides were distracted by the empty gym and the novelty. Before long, though, McLendon’s fast-break offense kicked in and North Carolina College ran Duke off the floor, 88-44.
The players then integrated sides and played another game before going to a dormitory to talk for a few hours.
To avoid any issues, the whole thing was kept out of the press. It remained unknown until 1996, when the New York Times published an article about it.
This was the pattern for much of McLendon’s career, one of remarkable accomplishment played out almost entirely away from the eyes of the mainstream.
His North Carolina College teams won eight black college basketball championships between 1940 and 1952. He won three consecutive NAIA championships as coach of Tennessee State, another black college, from 1957 to 1959.
In 1961, McLendon became the first black coach of a professional basketball team in an integrated league, coaching the Cleveland Pipers for owner George Steinbrenner in the American Basketball League, a short-lived effort founded by Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein in an attempt to compete with the NBA.
McLendon resigned midway through the season, though, after he clashed with Steinbrenner over the owner’s intense meddling with the team (a habit that Steinbrenner would of course exhibit on a far bigger stage years later).
McLendon’s went on to coach Cleveland State University, becoming the first black head coach of a majority white college. In 1969, he took the head coach job with the Denver Rockets of the ABA, but lasted only a few months as the team got off to a 9-19 start.
That was McLendon’s last coaching stint. He took a job as a company representative for Converse, where he worked for two decades. He later said that college, with the close relationships that form between players and coaches, suited him more than the pro game, where players get traded and moved according to the dictates of management.
McLendon ended his college coaching career with a record of 496-179, most of those coming during the heyday of the historical black colleges, when segregation made such schools the only option for many talented African-American players.
He never got the chance to coach at a major college program such as Kansas, his alma mater. Such an opportunity would have been nice, he later said, adding: “I did all I could do in the time frame I was in.”
But he paved the way for many black coaches who followed. In 1970, Will Robinson became the first black head coach at a Division I school when he was hired by Illinois State.
McLendon died in 1999 at age 84. In the decades since he got his first head coaching job in 1940, the fast break system he developed has been adopted across basketball. In the 1970s, in a bit of irony given the fact that McLendon coached in Durham for years, Duke garnered national attention for implementing the fast break.
As it is, every coach from Jerry Tarkanian to Brad Stevens has a little of McLendon’s DNA in his system.
Further Reading and Viewing:
Breaking Through: John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer by Milton S. Katz is an engaging and fascinating look at McLendon’s life.
They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers by Ron Thomas gives a broader overview of early African-Americans in pro basketball.
In his book Fast Break Basketball: Fundamentals and Fine Points, John McLendon explains his system.
Writer Scott Ellsworth first broke the story of the 1944 “secret game” after McLendon mentioned it in an interview. He provides a recounting of that here.
The documentary film Black Magic is a great introduction to the early black basketball pioneers and features tons of great archival footage