McLendon was born April 15, 1915 in Hiawatha, Kansas. He studied at the University of Kansas in the 1930s where he learned the intricacies of basketball. However, McLendon was not allowed to play because the university’s team was segregated. McLendon went on to be a successful college coach at schools such as North Carolina College for Negroes, Hampton Institute, and Kentucky State College.
During this time he was a three-time winner of the NAIA Coach of the Year Award and while coaching at Tennessee State, he became the first college basketball coach to win three consecutive NAIA championships. McLendon’s teams were credited with increasing the pace of basketball from the slow tempo of the early years. In 1962, McLendon was hired as head coach of the American Basketball League Cleveland Pipers, making him the first African American head coach in professional sports.
In 1966, McLendon was hired to coach at Cleveland State University, becoming the first African American basketball coach at a predominantly White university. McLendon retired from coaching in 1969. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 and posthumously inducted into the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.
McLendon’s biography, “Breaking Through: John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer,” was published in 2007. His coaching legacy is also chronicled in the ESPN documentary, “Black Magic,” which was first aired in 2008.