It wouldn’t surprise me if Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett have not heard of John McLendon or Clarence “Bighouse” Gaines.
It would disappoint me, but it wouldn’t surprise me.
Williamson and Barrett are the two best college basketball. Williamson is considered a generational talent with Barrett not far behind. Both decided to take their talents to Duke University.
Gaines and McLendon were generational talents, too. They are two of the greatest coaches in college basketball history. They used their talents at black institutions.
When Gaines retired from Winston-Salem State University in 1993, only University of Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp had more victories than Gaines’ 828. He’s a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, was conference coach of the year six times, conference tournament’s outstanding coach eight times, and Division II Coach of the Year in 1967 after winning the national title – the first black college to accomplish the feat.
McLendon learned many of the intricacies of basketball from Dr. James Naismith, who invented the sport and who also served as the athletics director at the University of Kansas. Segregation kept McLendon from playing at Kansas, but he was a tremendous coach at North Carolina Central University, Hampton University, Tennessee State University, Kentucky State University and Cleveland State University, where he was the first African American head coach of a predominantly white university.
Over a 12-year span, he led North Carolina Central to eight conference titles, was selected best conference coach three times, and he won three consecutive divisional championships at Tennessee State – the first college basketball coach to ever win three straight national titles. He is credited with inventing the fast break, the full-court press and the four corners. Sorry, Dean Smith.
They were great coaches because they had great players. Nowadays, the best black basketball players are totally ignoring black colleges – the same colleges that gave most of their parents and grandparents an opportunity for an education or a place to compete in sports.
Imagine if Duke’s 2018 incoming class of Williamson, Barrett, Cam Reddish and Trey Jones had joined forces to attend N.C. Central, Winston-Salem State, N.C. A&T State University, Hampton University, Virginia Union University, Grambling State University or Tennessee State and took one of those HBCUs deep into the NCAA Tournament.
Such a power move would have altered college basketball’s landscape and the players would have been pioneers and trendsetters on the court and off. They also would have followed in the footsteps of HBCU legends who became NBA superstars, champions and Hall of Famers: Sam Jones (NCCU), Earl “The Pearl” Monroe (WSSU), Al Attles (N.C. A&T), Rick Mahorn (Hampton), Mike Davis (Virginia Union), Willis Reed (Grambling) and Dick Barnett (Tennessee State).
On top of that, the basketball world would know HBCU coaches like LeVelle Moton (NCCU) or Jay Joyner (N.C. A&T), just as it has come to know Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams. After all, it’s great players that make great coaches.
I first thought about the possibility of an HBCU winning a Division I championship several years ago when I read William Rhoden’s “Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete.”
He discusses the societal impact of black athletes, including the Fab Five – five of the country’s best black high-school basketball players who selected the University of Michigan in 1991 and led the school to two consecutive championship games.
Although the Fab Five was a cultural force that appeared supremely confident in their young black manhood, Rhoden emphasizes that a predominantly white institution nevertheless took advantage of their economic power.
“They could have chosen an HBCU and taken it to the NCAA Final Four as surely as they did Michigan, which would have shone a national spotlight on those schools, driven money and new blood into them, and provided an impressive model of black self-help,” Rhoden says.
“Instead,” Rhoden contends, “they … empowered the very system of power that has traditionally smothered black aspirations.”
Although Rhoden asserts that the Fab Five discussed attending an HBCU, in the final analysis a “rich, predominantly white institution simply got richer from black labor while black institutions were left struggling.”
Fast forward nearly three decades later and history has rewritten itself, this time at Duke. Williamson, Barrett, Reddish and Jones, in their one-year college layover en route to the NBA, had an opportunity to reshape college basketball and make HBCUs relevant in the NCAA Tournament. They shot an air ball.
Other top players who like to tout themselves as “woke” will come along and have an opportunity to impact HBCUs with their selection of a college. Will they have the courage to enroll at an HBCU?
Yes, it will definitely take courage. Especially when the national media look sideways at their choice of school, question whether their grades were subpar, and debate whether they were afraid of top-level competition.
Nevertheless, their choice could determine if twenty years from now there will be more than the current two – TWO – players in the NBA who attended an HBCU. In a league where 75 percent of its players are African American, that low level of HBCU representation is both confounding and reprehensible.