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Pioneering coach McLendon a mentor, example for many

POSTED: Feb 8, 2013 12:07 PM ET

By Isiah Thomas

BY Isiah Thomas


Pioneering coach John B. McLendon celebrates a win with his Tennessee State team.

Many of you may not have heard the name John B. McLendon Jr. He was an African American pioneer of basketball. He was my first basketball mentor and one of the game's leading ambassadors for more than 60 years.

McLendon was an undergraduate student at the University of Kansas and a student of Dr. James Naismith, the man who invented the game of basketball. He was the first coach to win three consecutive national titles while at Tennessee State and is largely credited for how the game is played today. He is enshrined in both the Basketball Hall Of Fame and the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.

Coach McLendon and I met when I was 10 years old at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boys and Girls Club on the west side of Chicago. I remember the day Coach McLendon walked into the gym. Coach Johnnie Gage, my AAU coach, stopped practice immediately. He made us clap and bow our heads as a gesture of respect. This man, who stood all of 5-foot-7, had a smile that was more like a grin. Coach McLendon's powerful warmth and goodness filled the gymnasium. I remember feeling like we were in the presence of greatness. I remember Coach Gage extending his hand and bowing his head to Coach McLendon. We all stood and stared at the great display of respect that was given to him. Coach Gage motioned to us to come over and meet this great man. We quickly sprinted over and sat at his feet. I did not know that day the lifelong impact his words would have on my life.

I recall him looking down at my gym shoes, which were very dirty, full of holes and too small for my feet. I tried to hide my shoes from this giant of a man because I was ashamed. He did something I will never forget. He knelt down, stuck his finger in the hole in the sole of my shoe and stated, "You gave your best."

Then he started to speak. "With this ball you will meet Kings and Queens, Presidents and Senators. You will travel to different countries and make new friends. Your teammates that you play with will be your lifelong friends. This ball and this game will make you happy and make you sad." I had never heard the game being talked about in such terms as friendship, travel, culture and emotion. On that day, not only did he touch the hole in the sole of my shoe, his words filled the hole in my basketball soul.

Coach McLendon was with me through my high school, college and pro careers. In fact, when I was drafted by the Detroit Pistons, he introduced me to my second basketball mentor, Will Robinson. Coach Robinson was the first African American head coach of a Division 1 college basketball program, at Illinois State. He was also a scout for the Detroit Pistons. I was fortunate to have these two pioneers of basketball as mentors and role models.

McLendon was not just my mentor, he became a true friend. He was one of my first hires when I became part owner of the Toronto Raptors. He was the coach who taught life lessons through the game. "You play as you live" he and Coach Robinson would often say. I miss our long philosophical conversations about the game and the wisdom they would share. McLendon not only taught the game of basketball he taught the game of life. He taught us how to win on and off the court.

When you watch LeBron James, Chris Paul or any player sprinting up the court after a missed shot, with or without the ball, to gain an offensive advantage against the defense before it is set and scores; that is a "fast break." We can thank Coach McLendon for this beautiful display of basketball. His "fast break" philosophy of basketball requires great defensive pressure with an emphasis on defense and offensive pressure. He and I used to talk for hours and sometimes days about fast-break basketball and pressure defense. The first time I heard a shot could be taken in eight seconds or less was from Coach McLendon when I was 10 years old.

Basketball is a "thinking man's game," McLendon would say. When he came to our practices he would teach pressure man-to-man trapping defensive concepts. Defensive pressure when applied correctly disrupts the individual's ingrained patterns of thought, causing the player to forget his training and abandon his trust and belief in his team. The goal is to separate the individual from his team and create the illusion of "isolation" in a crowded arena with thousands of people watching. The player becomes trapped physically by two defenders and mentally in his own mind. Panic and anxiety follows and invariably the player will make a mistake creating a turnover or some other opportunity for the opposing team or player, thus taking advantage of his weakness. Pressure should be applied physically and mentally, Coach McLendon taught.

From 1915 to 1999 as an African American man and coach he dealt with the pressures of segregation and racial discrimination. I am sure there were plenty of times when he felt trapped and isolated but he never panicked. He simply split the trapping defense and advanced his cause of human decency through the game of basketball and scored. When he wasn't scoring for himself he was assisting others and "giving his best."

Ode to the vanquished
John B. McLendon Jr.

My heart goes out in full embrace, to any man who runs his race

Not almost all, nor just in part

But wholly from the tensioned start;

And whether of vast or doubtful strength who strides the course it's tortured length

Who will not quit but falters on

Until his entire strength is gone

Within there is bursting pride

For one who will not turn aside

Straining, striving, by others passed, outrun, out sped and often outclassed

But struggling onward, giving all gaining his prize refusing to fall

Such valiance does indeed direct true inspiration, great respect.

The victor commands the watchful eye of the cheering throng as he passes by

Too often his winning place is stressed out of proportion to all the rest

Though well - deserved his laurel wreath

But for me let me bequeath.

Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas, a 6-foot-1 guard from Indiana University, was the second pick in the 1981 NBA Draft. He is a 12-time All-Star who played his entire 13-year NBA career with the Detroit Pistons, leading them to back-to-back championships in 1989 and '90. He won two All-Star Game MVPs and was the NBA Finals MVP in '90. Thomas also has been a part owner, executive and coach in the NBA.

He's now an analyst for NBA TV and will be a regular contributor to

You can follow him on Twitter at @iamisiahthomas.