McLendon big part of basketball history

By Dave Elsesser

An understudy of basketball’s inventor said Wednesday, the work of an overzealous custodian played a key role in the sport’s origin.

John B. McLendon, believed to be the last person alive to have worked under Dr. James Naismith, told listeners during a speech at Gabel Hall the game almost became “boxball.”

“While Doctor Naismith was preparing to introduce the game to his students, a custodian removed his (Naismith’s) boxes from the gym,” McLendon said. “He was going to use boxes and mount them in the opposite corners of the gym.

“But because of the custodian, he had to go to the market and get a couple of peach baskets. Since the baskets didn’t fit in the corner as well as the boxes did, he decided to put them on each end.”

When Naismith nailed the baskets to the wall, McLendon said, they just happened to be 10 feet high.

McLendon, who studied under Naismith and legendary coach Phog Allen at the University of Kansas, has some impressive credentials of his own. In 34 years of coaching, McLendon accumulated a .760 winning percentage, and won several titles. At Tennessee A&I State in 1959, he became the first college coach to win three consecutive national titles.

Now a promotional representative for Converse, McLendon speaks all over the country.

“Basketball was created for the Springfield (Mass.) College football players in the offseason,” McLendon said. “They (college officials) needed to keep them (players) out of trouble in the winter, so they (college officials) asked Naismith to create an indoor sport.

“Originally, Doctor Naismith intended for basketball to be a game that people just got together and played,” he said.

But, as the number of fans increased, McLendon said, the more the game changed.

“In the early days, a ball that went out of bounds went to the team which got to it first. But when the fans began to help players get the ball, they (officials) put the game in a cage,” McLendon said.

Thus, the term “cagers” originated.

“Eventually, they realized that they needed a better rule and decided to give the ball to the opposite team,” he said.

Another change McLendon said took longer than one might think was cutting the bottoms out of the peach baskets.

“A lot of people think the term goaltending came from guys like Bill Russell and Kareem Abdul Jabbar,” McLendon said. “It really came from the goaltenders whose job was to climb a ladder and take the ball out of the basket.”

McLendon said Naismith gave him the worst look he ever saw one day in class.

“I asked him why he didn’t just cut out the bottom of the basket,” McLendon said. “He never did answer that question.”

McLendon also said Naismith gave the shortest speech he ever heard at a coaches’ convention.

“They were discussing the possibility of changing the height of the basket to 12 feet,” McLendon said. “Naismith stepped up to the microphone and said, ‘No matter where you put the basket, the tall guys will always be the closest to it.'”