As I have been working on my book about Junius A. Kellogg, tentatively entitled “The Man Who Saved Basketball,” I could not help but be impressed with his numerous connections to sports figures, jazz musicians, adaptive sports (such as wheelchair basketball, NYC politicians, social organizations, the disabled community and within the Manhattan College community. Not every connection made its way into the book. It is obviously why I enjoy writing these posts — to not forget and to celebrate.
I had the chance to interview a man who played a role in Junius’ life, Cornelius Harding, who passed an interesting fact by me. Mr. Harding, like Junius, went to I.C. Norcom H.S. in Portsmouth, VA. Junius was a few years ahead of Harding, but both went to the school when it was still segregated.
In the summers, Cornelius and Junius played league basketball in the Carolina league. They put together a team called “The Vagabonds.” On May 1, 1951, a day declared (not) May Day, but Junius Kellogg Day for his honesty in the turning down an offer to throw a basketball game.
In the course of my conversation with Cornelius Harding, he told me that the famous basketball player and coach John McClendon saw Junius play and was impressed with Junius’ ability. He felt that with a lot of hard work, Junius could have been good enough to make it onto an NBA roster.
A Basketball Legend
John McClendon led a long and storied career as both a player and a coach. To give you an idea of how far back Junius Kellogg’s connections go, McClendon reputedly was the first African American player to learn the game from Dr. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball when he attended the University of Kansas. However, like most stories of that era, it was bittersweet — full of vile actually, for KU was segregated and McClendon was not allowed on the team. In 1979, he was admitted into the Naismith Memorial HOF as a contributing member.
John McClendon was a coaches’ coach. He coached at the North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University), Hampton Institute (now University), Tennessee A&I (now Tennessee State University), Kentucky State College (now University) and Cleveland State University. My guess is that McClendon got a look at Junius Kellogg when he was coaching at Hampton University in Virginia which is in very close proximity to Portsmouth. For much of McClendon’s collegiate coaching career, he coached in “all Negro” leagues.
Here’s another interesting connection. In 1962, George Steinbrenner (of New York Yankees fame) hired John McClendon to coach his ABL team, the Cleveland Pipers. This would make John McClendon the first African American coach to ever coach professional basketball. And an interesting parallel: during roughly the same period, Junius Kellogg had become the first African American coach in the history of wheelchair basketball.
In 1966, John McClendon was hired to be head coach at Cleveland State University making him the first African American coach to take up the whistle at a predominantly white college. In 1969, McClendon returned to the professional ranks for a second, albeit brief time to coach the Denver Rockets of the ABA. The team would eventually become the Denver Nuggets.
By the way, even if you aren’t all that familiar with basketball you have probably heard the term, “Full Court Press.” The full court press was invented by McClendon and that form of defense is in use to the present day.