How Basketball's Fight Over Racial Equality Remade the Game
In ‘Basketball: A Love Story,’ authors Jackie MacMullan, Rafe Bartholomew, and Dan Klores fashioned a compelling oral history of hoops. In this excerpt the talk turns to race.
Dr. James Naismith’s final student before he retired from the University of Kansas was John McLendon, the pioneer of fast-break basketball, the full-court press, and the four corners offense. Yet McLendon never received the credit he deserved, because the majority of his work was accomplished at historically black colleges and universities when basketball was still segregated in the United States.
Long before civil rights legislation began to rid America of the scourge of segregation, McLendon was utilizing basketball to break down racial barriers. In March 1944, McLendon orchestrated a “secret game” between his team, North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), and a collection of white former college basketball stars from Duke University Medical School, who had handily beaten the Duke varsity team in a scrimmage. McLendon planned the game for a Sunday morning, when most people would be in church. The medical students borrowed cars from friends and drove a circuitous route to the school to avoid being detected, arriving with their jackets pulled over their heads. They hustled into a locked gym, where McLendon’s Eagles trounced them 88–44. There were no spectators.
“Coach Mac” went on to mentor countless African American coaches, among them Southern University coach Ben Jobe, Clarence “Big House” Gaines (who led Winston-Salem State University to a Division II NCAA championship in 1967 on the strength of a young guard named Earl Monroe), and former Georgetown coach John Thompson, who became the first African American coach to win a Division I championship.
SONNY HILL [Philadelphia basketball legend, founder of Sonny Hill Community Involvement League]: Coach McLendon didn’t sit at the knee of Dr. Naismith to play basketball. He sat at the knee of Dr. Naismith because Coach McLendon’s father wanted him to further his education. So he took him to Kansas, where Dr. Naismith was the athletic director.
BILLY PACKER (NCAA Basketball Broadcaster, 1974–2008; Guard, Wake Forest University Demon Deacons, 1959–62): He was the only student in the graduate school who was black. James Naismith orchestrated it so McLendon would not only be able to get his degree but move forward in regard to his coaching.
HILL: Coach McLendon was taking a physical education class at Kansas. He had a chance to go to the swimming pool. The whites thought that if he went in the swimming pool, it would turn black, so they drained the pool so the water wouldn’t be contaminated.
BEN JOBE (Head Coach, Southern University Jaguars, 1986–96 and 2001–03; Died 2017): Coach Mac did a great job of selling basketball in the area and kept us out of trouble. Without basketball, I think a lot of us would’ve been in serious trouble. His philosophy was, “It takes a village.” So, if your parents weren’t up to par, you could always go to Coach. If you needed food, you could go to Coach.
HILL: The vision of rebounding, kicking the ball out to midcourt, and then taking it up—that was Coach McLendon. He was the father of fast-break basketball.
WAYNE EMBRY [Center, Cincinnati Royals/Boston Celtics, 5-time NBA All-Star]: He called his offense “jack in the box,” which was the four corners. He took what he learned from Dr. Naismith and was able to apply his own creativity to it.
JOHN THOMPSON [Center, Boston Celtics; Head Coach, Georgetown Hoyas, 1972-99]: His style of play, pressing and running, was considered to be undisciplined—until white coaches started doing it.
HILL: [University of North Carolina coach] Dean Smith used to sit with Coach McLendon and Coach Gaines, and they would have basketball conversations. And one of the things that came out of those conversations was the four corners. Dean Smith was able to implement the four corners, which caught on because he was a white coach with a national audience, even though it was something that was done regularly prior to that at the black colleges.
JOBE: Coach Mac told us the game should be played from baseline to baseline, offensively and defensively. I bought into it and some of the other [African American] coaches bought into it, but when we integrated, they wanted to coach like the guys they saw on TV to show that we were “civilized.”
THOMPSON: People always ask why I don’t sit at the end of the bench. It was because of Coach McLendon. He sat in the middle of the bench and coached. He was the assistant coach [of the 1968 Olympic team], and players were on both sides of him. They could hear him. From that day on, I sat in the middle of the bench because of my respect for him.
EMBRY: You think about the ’50s, ’60s, and it was unique for a team to dominate as his teams did, because most of the world was against you. He was able to persevere through that.
THOMPSON: When I was growing up, all I heard about was John McLendon and Big House Gaines. Most of the guys I played with on the playground went to those traditional black schools, Tennessee A&I or North Carolina Central. Those were places I aspired to go before I realized I could look at a broader range of schools. Black schools weren’t on television; black schools didn’t travel as much. You were in a better position to go to the NBA if you went to a school like Providence [College]. The other schools were discriminated against.
EARL MONROE [Guard, Baltimore Bullets/New York Knicks,: 4-time NBA All-Star] I played for Coach Gaines at Winston-Salem. People revered him not only as a great coach but as a great man. He helped turn the tide in terms of how people perceive black colleges and black coaches.
PACKER: By the time I was a sophomore at Wake Forest, our team was really good and I was getting a lot of credit along with the other guys. We’d be in the front page of the sports section, and on the third [page] would be Winston-Salem. I kept reading about this guy named Cleo Hill who would score 30 points. I had nothing to do one night, so I hitchhiked across town. I walk in, and there’s 1,500 to 1,800 people in this arena, and Big House Gaines walks over to me. He knew who I was because I had notoriety from playing in the ACC [Atlantic Coast Conference], and he says, “Why don’t you sit over here with me on the bench.” The game starts, and Cleo Hill jumps center. He’s about 6'1", and he outjumps a 6'10" guy. . . Cleo makes a couple of right-handed hook shots, a couple of left-handed hook shots, traps the ball above the backboard, dunks a couple of times. And I’m saying, “There’s no player in the ACC that’s even in his league, much less can play against him.”
MONROE: They didn’t have much regard for black coaches—or black schools, for that matter. You had people like Coach Gaines who stayed at Winston-Salem for 47 years because there was no place else to go.
JOBE: I went to see Coach McLendon one day. I opened the door and there was a white guy with his back to him, and Coach McLendon said, “I’m a little busy right now, but go to the cafeteria. Give me about an hour.” He had chalk in his hand. I couldn’t see the face of the guy with his back to him. When I came back, I said, “Coach, who was that guy?” He got real quiet and said, “I’m goin’ to tell you this, but you must never, never mention it.” This was 1955. He said, “That was coach Adolph Rupp from [the University of] Kentucky. They’re in town to play Vanderbilt, and he had some questions about my philosophy of the game. But he wouldn’t want anybody to know he was getting this knowledge from a black coach, so don’t you mention it.”
THOMPSON: They were so careless with black coaches. They put Big House Gaines in the Hall of Fame, but they put the wrong name on his ring. They put “Smokey Gaines” instead of “Big House.” I went to speak at his banquet when he was inducted [into] the Hall. He hit me with an elbow and said, “Boy, I’m gonna show you something.” I looked at his ring and he said, “They didn’t even know my name.”
AL SHARPTON (Civil Rights Activist; 2004 candidate for president): There are those who feel there is too much emphasis in the African American family about what sports means. But I think you have to have grown up and have direct knowledge of the African American experience to understand why this is so.
EMBRY: Basketball gave me a sense of confidence because in the 1940s and ’50s, African Americans looked for acceptance. I grew up in the Jim Crow era and couldn’t go to restaurants, couldn’t go to a lot of public places. I was the only African American in my high school. So naturally, you want to be accepted. Basketball got me accepted.
SHARPTON: Sports was one of the first areas that we could break through in American life. Before we could be a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, or before we could be a senator or president of the United States, we could be Jackie Robinson, we could be Oscar Robertson or Bill Russell.
SPENCER HAYWOOD [Center, 1970 ABA MVP; 4-time NBA All-Star]: When I was growing up in Mississippi, I never went to a bathroom because it was whites only. I never drank out of a water fountain because it was whites only. If you don’t want to serve me, I’ll go around back and you’ll serve me, and I’ll go in the bushes and eat. That’s life.
LENNY WILKENS [Point Guard; 9-time NBA All-Star; 1994 NBA Coach of the Year]: A lot of pretty good black athletes from my neighborhood went to black schools. They did not go to North Carolina or Duke or Kentucky—they weren’t recruited.
TOM “SATCH” SANDERS [Power Forward, Boston Celtics; 8-time NBA Champion]: [Frank] McGuire comes up to NYC and wants to meet with me. He says, “You’re a Negro. Negroes can’t play at North Carolina, you gotta be kidding me.” He said, “I’m gonna kill my scouts. They told me everything about you, but they never told me you were a Negro.”
PACKER: I’ll never forget my first weekend at Wake Forest. Five of us went to a movie. In Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, we always got our candy and sat in the back. We get the candy and start going back, and a guy says, “Where are you going? That’s where the niggers sit.”
MONROE: My parents came down to visit me at Winston-Salem one time. We went to a place on Trade Street called Dan’s Diner, and when we went in there, someone said, “We don’t serve your kind.” That was really the first time I had heard anything like that, and they had to physically drag me out of the place.
SHARPTON: Some felt they had to hold [black] people back because if [blacks] competed, they would break down our whole social structure and start wanting to date our daughters and live in our neighborhoods. You’ve got to keep them closed out because they may invade the world as you know it. They’re not just looking at “Can you play ball?” but “You’re going to want to live in my neighborhood, you’re gonna want to date my sister, you going to want everything that is in my sociocultural setting, and that is a no-no.” And I think that is where the fear came from.
HAYWOOD: The whites would call us the young bucks, and as we grew bigger and faster, the idea was for them to lay a false charge on you so you would go to jail for one or two or three weeks, or even a year. Then you would drop out of school and be beholden to the farm. That was the indigenous slavery process they had going on. I was the next guy in line, so my mother says, “We gotta get you out of here because I want you to graduate high school.” We scraped up enough money, I caught the bus out of Belzoni, Mississippi, and I escaped up Highway 61.
EMBRY: I grew up wanting to play for the University of Dayton because they were perennial NIT [National Invitation Tournament] contenders. I was recruited by many schools in Ohio, all but Dayton. I grew up 20 miles from there and couldn’t understand it. I ended up selecting Miami University [of Ohio] after several visits to Ohio State and a couple of other colleges. After I made my decision, my high school coach told me that Dayton didn’t recruit me because they had a number of games in the South scheduled years in advance, and the coach didn’t want to expose me to the treatment I was likely to receive there.
WES UNSELD (Center, Baltimore/Washington Bullets; 1969 NBA MVP): I was the first black recruited by [the University of] Kentucky. Another school had contacted me, which forced Kentucky to do the same. At that time, Kentucky had a thought process where they couldn’t recruit a black person because they couldn’t stay in school, couldn’t do the work. There was a very renowned columnist at the [Louisville] Courier-Journal by the name of Dean Eagle who espoused some of my plaudits as to my academics and my basketball, because I was at that time one of the most highly recruited players in the country. So Adolph Rupp had no excuse.
AHMAD RASHAD (Broadcaster, NBA on NBC): In the ’60s, the country was going through a change. African American athletes were trying to bring it more to light, saying, “Listen, there’s been inequality too long. There’s got to be something we can do. We can’t keep winning championships and gold medals and then come home and be second-class citizens.”
UNSELD: I never met Rupp initially. I talked to the assistant freshman basketball coach. That’s when I knew that Rupp wasn’t serious about recruiting me. Later on, after much pressure, I met the assistant coach, Harry Lancaster. There came a time when it got kind of heated and Rupp wanted to meet me. It just so happened, the day he wanted to do it, I had a commitment at La Grange Reformatory to be a speaker at the basketball banquet. He knew this. He wanted to meet my parents at our home. On that day, I stayed at the house to meet Mr. Rupp, with the prison car that was going to drive me up to the reformatory. I told them I had to wait at least for the meeting between Mr. Rupp and my parents. I waited a long time. . . . Finally, I got in the car and went to the reformatory. Next day, Rupp put out that I didn’t have the courtesy to stay and talk to him. It doesn’t bother me—it’s just these stories weren’t true.
SANDERS: It always amazed me when people asked me, “How can you play in Boston?” I’d say, “How can I play in America? I have problems all over the place.”
WILKENS: St. Louis was an interesting city. We bought a home in a neighborhood, and For Sale signs went up everywhere. Some people moved, some stayed, and when they saw we weren’t going to burn the area down, they became friendlier. You protested in your own way. I wasn’t going to let anyone believe that I condoned this. There was a guy that lived next door to me. I was married by then, and our little girl was just starting to walk. I was out front with her, and the guy pulled up in his driveway. We had carports, we didn’t have garages, and he pulled up and opened the door to his car and [then] backed out so he wouldn’t have to look at me. After that, I decided [that] at 6 o’clock every evening, I would stand out front so he would have to back out. My wife thought I was a little crazy, but honest to God, I did it.
SANDERS: My worst times were in Los Angeles with cops. One time, Sam Jones and I were returning from the grocery store, and the cops thought we shouldn’t be in that particular neighborhood and they pulled guns on us. Another time in LA, we were at a party, and the cops got angry that we were there and went for their guns. The hosts of the party had to jump on them and hold them down so we could find a way to get out of there.
RASHAD: My freshman year in college, 1969, the coach of the basketball team kicked me off the team because my Afro was too big. If I didn’t cut it, I would have to leave the team. I refused to cut it.
JULIUS ERVING (Small Forward, New York Nets/Philadelphia 76ers; 3-Time ABA MVP; 1981 NBA MVP): I learned a lot about race relations during my trips to South Carolina in the ’60s. There was always the crossing of the Mason-Dixon Line, and there would be a big sign when you got past Virginia and into North Carolina that said, “Welcome to Klan Country.”
ISIAH THOMAS (Point Guard, Detroit Pistons; 12-Time NBA All-Star): My journey to high school in 1979 was about three hours. I would have to take three buses to the end of the line and the train to the end of the line, and then I would have to walk a mile and a half to school. During that walk, your [white] friends would be driving by with their parents, but they wouldn’t stop. It’s cold in Chicago, and by you’d say, “Hey, man, didn’t you see me? Why didn’t you stop?” And they’d say, “Well, I’m not like that, but my mom and dad are from a different generation.”
PATRICK EWING (Center, New York Knicks; 11-Time NBA All-Star): One of the first times I experienced racism was when I moved to Boston. A lot of racial things happened with my Cambridge Rindge and Latin team. Our bus got broken into, our tires got slit, and the names that they called us . . . I just used it to fuel myself to be better.
SHAQUILLE O’NEAL [Center, Orlando Magic/Los Angeles Lakers; 2000 NBA MVP]: My junior year, 1988, I’m a high school All-American, playing at a small high school in Texas. We’re on the bus and we’re going through this town, and we’re undefeated and everybody’s talking about who is this Shaq kid? As soon as we hit the town, it’s “Beat Cole High School,” “Beat Shaq,” “Beat the Monkey,” “Beat the Gorilla.” Right before we get to the school there’s a tree, and there’s a black, 7-foot scarecrow hanging from the tree with my jersey on it. Boy, was I upset. I was so upset that my coach called a play and I said, “No, we’re not doing that today. Give me the ball.” I dunked so many times that by the end of the first quarter, the rim was bent halfway to the floor.
Reprinted from Basketball: A Love Story. Copyright © 2018 by My Three Sons Productions, Inc. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.