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Basketball legend ‘Coach Mac,’ John McLendon, finally in Hall of Fame as coach

He will become the only Hall of Fame member inducted as a contributor and coach

John McLendon Jr. was one of the greatest basketball ambassadors the game has ever known.

It has been said that he did more than any single individual in history not only to use basketball as a powerful force for achieving breakthroughs in American race relations but also to spread the game internationally. He traveled to 58 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and South America, teaching the fundamentals of basketball and sportsmanship, just one in his tally of contributions.

Amazingly, McLendon performed his ambassadorship after retiring from a career as one of the greatest basketball coaches. McLendon, known affectionately as Coach Mac, was the first head coach to win three straight national championships, defeating dozens of white teams from all over the country to capture the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) title with his legendary teams at Tennessee A&I State University in 1957, 1958, and 1959. He also won the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) championship with North Carolina College eight times in 11 years during the 1940s and early 1950s while revolutionizing the sport with the expanded use of a fast-break style of offense.

In 34 years of coaching, Coach Mac won 744 games, an average rate of more than 21 wins a season. In all those years, he never received a single technical foul. Hall of Fame coach Billy Packer lists McLendon as one of the top 10 coaches of the 20th century.

McLendon was more than just a coach and an ambassador; he was also a civil rights activist and broke numerous previously unthinkable color barriers. In 1936, he was the first African-American to earn a physical education degree at the University of Kansas, where, by the way, his mentor was none other than Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of the game of basketball.

In 1944, he arranged the legendary secret game between his all-black CIAA champions and the all-white Duke University Medical School team on the North Carolina College campus. In the 1950s, he leveraged the NAIA tournament to racially integrate whites-only establishments in Kansas City, Kansas. When he was hired by Cleveland State University in 1961, he became the first black coach at a predominantly white college. He was the first African-American on a U.S. Olympic basketball team coaching staff, in 1968 and 1972.

In 1979, he was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in recognition of these multidimensional accomplishments. He was enshrined as a contributor. But over the years, many people took this designation to mean that the Hall fell short somehow, that the immenseness of Coach Mac’s achievements as a pioneering coach were never properly recognized.

McLendon was nominated for enshrinement on five separate occasions during the early 1970s and did not get enough votes from the Honors Committee each time. According to his biographer, Milton S. Katz, the fact that he was repeatedly denied, then enshrined as a contributor, yet called the first black coach inducted, apparently enraged McLendon. During the last decades of his life, he refused to be listed by the Hall as a coach, especially not informally. He wrote a scathing letter (detailed in Katz’s book, Breaking Through: John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer) explaining why. His denial to the Hall was because of an archaic process that has since been changed and that even the Hall itself repudiates today. Looking at the situation with modern eyes, his enshrinement as a coach is obvious.

That’s why the situation is about to change. This week the Basketball Hall of Fame will enshrine John McLendon Jr. once again, this time as a coach, in its Class of 2016.

He will be the first Hall of Fame member to be inducted as both a contributor and a coach. This makes him whole within the hall and in the eyes of its namesake, Naismith, who would have been equally proud of both distinct aspects of Coach Mac’s brilliant basketball career. They will be aligned and combined under one roof now.

Speaking of symmetry, this year’s Hall of Fame enshrinement creates one more full-circle moment regarding the enshrinement of Coach Mac alongside Yao Ming. In the summer of 1980, Coach Mac was invited to Nanking, China, by the Chinese government for a series of clinics to teach Chinese basketball coaches how to coach the game. They videotaped all the sessions and produced a nationally distributed coaching manual.

According to Katz, the People’s Commissioner of Basketball in China told Coach Mac that the sport “will flower in China because of what you are doing.” Two months later, in September 1980, Yao Ming was born. Basketball brings us together, thanks to the pathways that were carved by its outstanding pioneers, making a difference long after they have left the courts and sidelines of history.

Claude Johnson is the founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, which researches, preserves and showcases the pre-1950 history of African-Americans in basketball while honoring its pioneers. He bounces non-stop between that, his writing, and his home life, which includes three teen student-athlete sons in football and basketball.