There is a lot to take in at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, with more than 40,000 square feet dedicated to the game of hoops.
But it wasn’t the Hall of Fame plaques of Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson or Larry Bird or Bill Russell or Allen Iverson that caught Oklahoma City Thunder general manager Sam Presti’s attention last year. Rather, it was a plaque of John McLendon.
Known for being the architect of the full-court press and fast-break basketball when he coached at historically black North Carolina Central University in the 1940s, McLendon was a coach who achieved many firsts for African-Americans in basketball. At Tennessee A&I in 1954, he led the first all-black college team to a national tournament. He became the first black coach in professional basketball when he coached the American Basketball League’s Cleveland Pipers in 1959. And he was the first African-American to become a member of USA Basketball’s coaching staff.
McLendon was also the first Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer inducted as both a coach and a contributor.
“Don’t get me wrong, the NBA is amazing. But the game is transcendent, and we need to preserve that history and learn about it,” Presti told The Undefeated. “Just because these people came before there was a true association, they are as impactful and important to the game itself.”
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Presti, who was at the 2018 Hall of Fame ceremony to celebrate the induction of Thunder assistant coach and former NBA star guard Maurice Cheeks, spent more time that weekend learning about the history of black pioneers in basketball, gathering insights from former college basketball coach and Hall of Famer George Raveling and Toronto Raptors senior basketball adviser Wayne Embry, who was the first black general manager and team president in the NBA.
“I walked back to a coffee shop and it was really heavy on my mind what John McLendon did,” Presti said. “Then George Raveling walked into the coffee shop and it was like having a talking encyclopedia before me on the topic that was consuming me at that point in time. He inspired me in conversation to think a little deeper. A half-hour later, I talked to Wayne Embry, who gave me more insight and inspiration to learn about the history in general.”
After the history lessons, Presti returned to Oklahoma City yearning for more knowledge on the subject. He was connected to The Black Fives Foundation, whose mission is to “research, preserve, showcase, and teach the pre-1950 history of African-Americans in basketball while honoring its pioneers and their descendants.”
The term “Black Fives” was coined for a group of five basketball players on the court before the integration of the NBA in 1950. According to The Black Fives Foundation, black basketball teams pre-NBA were often sponsored by black churches, athletic clubs, social clubs, businesses and newspapers and struggled to find places to play from the early 1900s to 1950. They were also often prohibited from playing in white-owned venues.
The New York Renaissance and Harlem Globetrotters were part of the era of basketball that the Black Fives celebrate. The Rens were the most successful black professional basketball team, and perhaps the best basketball team ever, winning 2,588 of 3,117 games from 1923-48. They defeated all-white teams to win the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939. The legendary Globetrotters, for years an all-black team, were born in 1926 and played more than 25,000 exhibition games in 123 countries.
The Black Fives Foundation also campaigned for black pioneers such as Reece Tatum, Don Barksdale, Edwin B. Henderson, Nat Clifton, John Isaacs, Cumberland Posey, Zack Clayton and Ora Washington to get inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“To me, the thing that stuck out is the history of these players and contributors from the Black Fives Era is so rich and meaningful. But it lacks a true voice because it falls outside a certain era of history,” Presti said. “For us, it is about understanding the origin of the game and not starting in a specific era. We want to keep building that perspective in our organization and our fans and supporters.”
Presti invited Black Fives Foundation executive director Claude Johnson to speak to Thunder players after practice on Jan. 21 in Oklahoma City.
During a 30-minute speech, Johnson challenged the Thunder players to spread the history they had learned to friends and media. He said Russell Westbrook appeared most intrigued by a pair of vintage basketball shoes and kneepads that black basketball pioneers wore that Johnson brought with him.
Johnson also hosted a black basketball pioneers exhibit during two Thunder home games last week.
“We started working on several different concepts to help our organization and hopefully stimulate some awareness,” Presti said.
Thunder guard Paul George, who said he had previously researched the history of Earl Lloyd, the first black basketball player in the NBA, admitted he wasn’t familiar with the history of black basketball pioneers until hearing Johnson.
“It was cool and dope because I don’t think anybody knew that knowledge, history,” George said. “The hope was for everybody to learn about our history as a culture.”
Johnson said Presti’s offer to speak to his players was the first he had received from an NBA team.
“I have never been able to break down and drop knowledge on the players,” Johnson said. “I think they really appreciated it. It not only means a lot to us in terms of validation, but it also says volumes about Sam and his leadership, the organization and the mindset around here.”