Read On!

Mrs. Farquharson’s musings about books for children and young adults

Basketball

February3

Who are you? What are You? Why are you here on this earth? Where are you going? – Coach John McLendon’s four questions for his players

One of the joys of sharing books with children and young adults is that one can introduce readers to stories about people who have made a positive difference in the world. Just before March Madness begins with the focus on college basketball, I enjoy reading Hoop Genius: How a Desperate Teacher and a Rowdy Gym Class Invented Basketball by John Coy (Carolrhoda Books). This year, there is a new book by the same author, Game Changer: John McLendon and the Secret Game illustrated by Randy DuBurke (Carolrhoda Books). These titles are perfect to pair because they demonstrate the universality of the sport, and the courage of two men.

John McLendon (1915-1999) was a disciple of James Naismith, who invented basketball. (How amazing is it that we can trace the origins of this sport to one man?) John McLendon had the goal of becoming a basketball coach, and his father said that he would work and devote his life to helping him achieve that goal. McLendon’s father sent him to the University of Kansas to learn from James Naismith. The biggest hurdle that McLendon would have to face was the color of his skin. He wasn’t allowed to play basketball in college because Kansas’ varsity basketball team did not suit up a black player until 1951. There were no college or professional African-American coaches. Naismith mentored the student and stood up for him when he faced obstacles because of his race. He was instrumental in helping McLendon get his first coaching job.

Game Changer chronicles one event in John McLendon’s illustrious career. In 1944, he orchestrated a secret game between his team from the North Carolina College of Negroes and white members of the Duke University Medical School team. The Duke players didn’t know who they were going to play as they took a circuitous route to their destination. At the beginning of the game, the players of both teams were hesitant because none of them had ever touched a person of a different color. As they all became more confident just playing basketball, the white players soon realized that they were outmatched. McLendon’s team played a much more athletic and faster game. The North Carolina College of Negroes won that first game 88 to 44.

When the game ended, no one wanted to leave. The teams played a second game, but for that, they mixed up the players from both colleges and played shirts against skins. While this was an important step in battling segregation, the players, coaches, and others who found out about it, had to keep silent. There were too many who believed in segregation in the United States who would have harmed the participants.

John McLendon was inducted into the John Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame twice. In 1979, he was inducted as a “contributor”, but in 2016 he was inducted as a coach.

The following video has excerpts of McLendon describing Naismith’s influence on his life:

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