McLendon was born in Hiawatha, Kansas in 1915 and attended the University of Kansas, where he was a member of the basketball team. After graduating, he began his coaching career at North Carolina College for Negroes, now known as North Carolina Central University. He was the first African American to coach a college basketball team and led the Eagles to three consecutive CIAA championships.
McLendon then moved on to the professional ranks, becoming the first African American to coach a professional basketball team when he was hired by the Cleveland Pipers of the American Basketball League in 1962. He led the Pipers to the ABL championship in 1962 and was named the league's Coach of the Year.
McLendon went on to coach the Denver Rockets of the American Basketball Association in 1967 and the Carolina Cougars of the ABA in 1969. He also served as an assistant coach for the Milwaukee Bucks of the National Basketball Association in 1970.
Throughout his career, McLendon was known for his innovative approach to the game, introducing the fast break and full-court press to the professional game. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1979 and is widely regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of the sport.