'Black Magic' goes a long way toward establishing black basketball's place in history and the game
It is impossible these days to think about baseball without remembering its ugly segregationist past. But I'd be surprised if many fans passing through Kansas City's new National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame during this Big XII tournament weekend think college hoops had any kind of racial baggage - an impression reinforced by the numbers of African-Americans in basketball today.
That's what makes "Black Magic," the documentary event beginning Sunday night on ESPN, such an important corrective.
Airing at 9 p.m. EDT, with Part 2 at 9 p.m. Monday, the four-hour film brings long-delayed recognition to two generations of black athletes who were systematically excluded from competing with whites. Then, for years after, they fought rumors of their inadequacy, until the watershed triumph of Texas Western in the 1966 NCAA tournament.
Like the Negro Leaguers, black college basketball players used their separateness to develop a game that was, in some ways, superior to that being played at white schools.
Filmmaker Dan Klores, who interviewed dozens of greats for "Black Magic," convincingly argues that basketball in the 1940s and 1950s at what we now call historically black colleges and universities - programs like Tennessee State, Winston-Salem and Bethune-Cookman - was faster-paced on offense and more determined on defense.
Black basketball players have gotten credit for being tall and brawny. What they've failed to get is recognition for their creative prowess.
And as we see in "Black Magic," the breakthroughs made in African-American basketball helped turn the game into the high-scoring, crowd-pleasing entertainment that it became in the 1960s.
And no one, the film contends, broke more ground than John McLendon. Born in Hiawatha, Kan., in 1915, part black, part Delaware Indian and all confidence, he strolled into James Naismith's coaching office at KU one day and on the spot made himself the protege of the inventor of basketball.
Through interviews with McLendon's widow, Joanna McLendon, and his biographer, Kansas City Art Institute professor Milton Katz, Klores reveals that Naismith was unhappy with the slow, deliberate version of basketball being played in all-white programs in Depression-era America.
McLendon would learn from his mentor and - though prohibited from playing at KU because of his race - would go on to develop the up-tempo motion offense that soon became dominant at African-American schools.
"His teams were averaging 96 (points) a game in the 1950s," Klores said recently. "It was no accident. It was design."
A design that called for a shot to be taken every 30 seconds was complemented by a defense that gave no quarter to its opponents and left many a player bent over at timeouts, trying to catch his breath.
"McLendon invented a game that was vigorous, lively, at top speed," says Harold Hunter, the first African-American NBAer and one of those astonishing where-did-he -come-from witnesses that make documentary watching an endless pleasure.
Though McLendon perfected his ideas away from white influence, he was no segregationist. He arranged a scrimmage against a talented all-white intramural squad at Duke Medical School in 1944, the so-called "secret game" where no spectators were allowed for fear of reprisals from the Durham KKK.
As hard as he pushed his teams, McLendon pushed the sport to accept and reward African-American players. A wonderful moment is hearing Hunter talk, still with a little awe, about learning that McLendon had arranged a contract for him with the Washington Capitols at the princely salary (in 1950) of $4,000.
"Black Magic" contains many amazing film clips, but perhaps none better displays the cultural impact of McLendon's up-tempo approach than one of Elgin Baylor, playing a high school game in Washington, D.C., circa 1955.
In one fluid motion, No. 22 grabs a rebound under the opponents' rim and immediately pirouettes into a perfect over-the-shoulder court-length pass to a white teammate, who scores easily.
"Black Magic's" soundtrack is dominated by R&B classics like "What'd I Say" and "Green Onions." The nonstop parade of crossover hits proves the ideal accompaniment to the film, as we see NBA Hall of Famers like Baylor, Earl "The Pearl" Monroe and Willis Reed develop their styles in the black culture and bring them into the American mainstream, much as Ray Charles and Aretha Franklin did.
The year after Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color line, McLendon began his efforts to bring black teams to a major college basketball tournament. The rebuff from the NCAA came in the form of a letter noteworthy for its reliance on white-supremacist canards.
The NAIA agreed to take in the black colleges, but first made them undergo a battle royal in their own bracket, the sole winner of which got to come to Kansas City to play the white teams.
According to Katz, author of a 2007 biography of McLendon, when North Carolina College for Negroes arrived in 1950, Coach McLendon got Converse Rubber, the Nike of its day, to pressure the hosts to let his team integrate the hotel as well as the tournament.
"He was not militant, but he did militant things," his widow says in the film.
His teams would win three straight titles, a decade before John Wooden's UCLA teams did.
They did it here, a few blocks from the new National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame, where you can find John B. McLendon, 1915-1999, in the founding class of inductees.