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Fast Break: The Legendary John McLendon, is a documentary about the life and legacy of coach John McLendon. It is presented by the Broken Fence Film Ranch, Rockhaven Films and Level Club productions. It is directed by award-winning Director, Kevin Willmott.

Inspired by the award winning biography, “Breaking Through: John B. McLendon, Basketball Legend and Civil Rights Pioneer,” by Milton S. Katz, the film reviews the life of this remarkable African-American Kansas Citian, the first black student at the University of Kansas to earn his degree in physical education and study under and be mentored by the inventor of basketball, Dr. James Naismith. A legendary basketball coach, McLendon was also a pioneer, supreme innovator, teacher, and consummate gentleman who not only was the first African-American coach to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, but along the way waged a successful fight to break down barriers of racial segregation in college and professional athletics.

Director Kevin Willmott, pictured above.

McLendon mapping out strategy at TSU

The Story

Fast Break: The Legend of John McLendon is the story of John McLendon’s struggle for equality in 1940s and 50s America, where one coach refused to accept that teams at traditionally black colleges were unable to achieve national prominence. An early pioneer of game preparation, conditioning, the fast break, the full court press, and a two – in – the – corner offense that became the seed for Dean Smith’s famous four – in – the – corner, McLendon’s teams played the first collegiate integrated game in Washington D.C. and the South. He was the first coach to win three consecutive national titles in the NAIA tournament in his hometown Kansas City, the first black coach of an integrated professional team, the first black coach at a predominately white college, the first black coach to compete in international competition, the first black coach on the U.S. Olympic basketball staff and the first African-American to serve on the U.S. Olympic committee.

John McLendon passed away at the age of 84 in 1999. Although his death was overlooked by much of the nation’s media, wrote Ron Chimelis in the Springfield (MA) Republican, ‘It took from us perhaps the last true link to basketball’s origins, but beyond that, a large piece of its soul.”

According to the film’s producer, Scott Unruh, he hopes that this project enlightens people, especially University of Kansas and Kansas City’s basketball fans, as to the importance of John McLendon’s accomplishments. Unruh is producing this film with the desire that his alma mater embraces this forgotten coach’s legacy and takes pride in his many successes — not only on the court, but in American society. John McLendon not only changed the way the game of basketball was played, but also, who could play it. He was much more than just a highly successful basketball coach. John McLendon was one of those individuals whose remarkable courage, unswerving determination, and moral strength in the pursuit of human rights and social justice brought democracy in America s step closer to reality.

The film is scheduled to be released  in 2016 and will be the third documentary that The Broken Film Ranch and Rockhaven Films have produced. The film hopes to be released at the University of Kansas mid-summer.

Further Reading

In an interview with NBC announcer Bob Kostas before the major league baseball All-Star game in St. Louis, July 14, 2009, President Barak Obama declared, “I firmly believe that there is a direct line between the early pioneers in sports and my election to the White House. They set a tone – created a culture – that paved the way for other breakthroughs down the road.”

On May 4, 1961, an integrated group of Freedom Riders set out on various forms of transportation for the Deep South to defy Jim Crow laws and call for change. By the “middle of the month, first in Alabama and later Mississippi, they were met with hatred and violence and the local police often refused to intervene. But the Riders persisted, and their noble efforts invigorated and transformed the civil rights movement. At the same time 732 miles North in Cleveland, Ohio, another racial barrier was breaking down, but this time the effort was nonviolent and largely dignified. On May 15, as Freedom Riders were being beaten in Alabama, a diminutive African American basketball coach named John McLendon, signed a two-year contract with Cleveland Pipers of the newly formed American Basketball League, thus becoming the first black coach of an integrated professional sports team. Having successfully coached the Pipers for two years previously, leading them to the AAU championship, as well as handing the 1960 US Olympic basketball team its only defeat, McLendon had proven his ability to coach an integrated team on the court and off of it. By this time he had also broken through significant racial barriers; having his all-black North Carolina College team play an illegal “secret game” against all-white Duke University Medical School in 1944 and convincing the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) to allow black colleges into its national tournament in the 1950s, where his Tennessee A & I team captured an unprecedented three consecutive national championships.

Following the advice of his college mentor Dr. James Naismith at the University of Kansas, McLendon always considered racial obstacles as challenges he had to use his creativity and courage to overcome. In this he had always been successful and coaching a mainly white professional basketball team brought about the same positive result as McClendon’s Pipers employed his patented fast break and full-court pressing defense to capture the Eastern Division ABL title. Earning the respect of players and fans alike as the first black coach of an integrated professional team, the consummate gentleman proudly and defiantly met the challenges of an often inhospitable segregated society before him.   Breaking through this racial barrier illuminates a little known, though significant chapter in American social history.

Dr. Katz



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