The National Basketball Association Finals began last week pitting the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors. Despite the great season of the Warriors and the brilliance of their NBA MVP Stephen Curry, the focus of the series will be on LeBron James. If he can lead the Cavaliers to give the city of Cleveland its first professional sports championship since the Browns won the NFL title in 1964, it would potentially be the biggest sports story of the year.
However, it would not be Cleveland’s first professional basketball title. In 1962, the Cleveland Pipers were champions of the American Basketball League (ABL). Although the league folded before the middle of the next season, its significance in pro basketball history centers around the Pipers who were coached by African American basketball pioneer John B. McLendon. Considered the “father of black basketball”, McLendon made history with the Cleveland Pipers by being the first African American to coach a professional sports team.
Although born April 5, 1915 in Hiawatha, Kansas; McLendon moved to Kansas City, Kansas by the time he was in grade school and that is where he fell in love with basketball. He went to college at the University of Kansas where African Americans then were less than one percent of the student population and were not allowed to play varsity basketball. At that time Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, was the Athletic Director and a professor at the school. McLendon still tried out for the KU’s basketball team and caught the eye of Dr. Naismith who became his mentor. Through majoring in physical education, McLendon studied basketball under Naismith and became the first African Americans to graduate KU with a PE degree.
McLendon believed basketball could be used to overcome racial barriers and integrate society. His teams were characterized by quickness and speed as he taught his players fast break basketball; full court offense and defense. McLendon is credited for devising the four corners offense and zone press defense.
Beginning in 1940, he won eight Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championships while coaching at North Carolina Central. In 1955, he became the head coach at Tennessee A & I (now Tennessee State) and led them to three consecutive National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) national championships in 1957 – 1959. Dick Barnett who had a stellar NBA career was the star of those three McLendon championship teams.
McLendon had six white and six African American players on the Pipers that first season, including Larry Siegfried and Connie Dierking who would go on to have NBA careers. He also had three former Tennessee A & I players, one being Barnett who had played the previous year in the NBA.
The Pipers were the first professional sports franchise owned by George Steinbrenner who even then had the heavy-handed and volatile characteristics he would publicly display in the future as owner of the New York Yankees. Two-thirds into the season, McLendon was no longer the coach. Different sources give conflicting stories as to whether he resigned or was fired. Asked if Steinbrenner was a racist McLendon replied, “No, he was not. He was not anti-black. He was anti-human”. Former Boston Celtic Bill Sharman finished the season as the Pipers’ coach and won the ABL Championship with McLendon’s team.
In 1966, McLendon became the first African American head coach at a predominantly white college when he was hired by Cleveland State University. He has been inducted into both the Basketball Hall of Fame (1979) and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame (2007).