From a young age, Deja McClendon knew her father played basketball in college.
But, at least for a while, she had no idea how good her father actually was.
“One day my grandparents came over with all these films,” Deja recalled from a time when she was in middle school. “And I was like, ‘Is this dad? Is this him?’ I didn’t even recognize him.”
Deja’s father, Roger McClendon, was one of the most decorated players in the University of Cincinnati’s basketball history.
Roger played for the Bearcats from 1984-88, and finished his career as the second all-time leading scorer in the school’s history, behind only Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson. Two players have surpassed Roger’s 1,789 career points since his playing days ended, but that in no way diminishes the success Roger, a member of the school’s basketball Hall of Fame, had at Cincinnati.
“Roger was one of the great 3-point shooters in the game,” said Tony Yates, Roger’s coach at Cincinnati, who added the 6-foot-5 shooting guard was one of the best players he’s ever coached. “He was a tremendous shooter. He had the green light from me at all times.”
It has been about 22 years since Roger stepped off the court for the last time, and a new chapter in collegiate athletics has begun for the McClendon family. Deja, an outside hitter on the No. 8 Penn State women’s volleyball team, has emerged as one of the best Nittany Lions as a mere freshman.
Eleven weeks through the season, the explosive 6-foot-1 outside hitter is second among all Nittany Lions with 280 kills.
“She’s a very happy, positive kid,” Penn State coach Russ Rose said earlier this season. “She always has a smile on her face and is just a wonderful kid to be around. You feel great to have her in your program.”
But for longtime college basketball fans in Ohio who remember watching Roger emerge as a freshman standout, Deja’s early success may not be as much of a surprise. Roger was the Bearcats’ leading scorer in not only his freshman season, but in his first three.
And the ways in which Deja has followed in her father’s footsteps in her young career are extremely similar.
In fact, it’s almost Déjà vu.
There is a simple explanation as to why Deja, her younger sister and two younger brothers didn’t know about their father’s success for awhile — he didn’t talk about it. Deja still admits she doesn’t know the full extent of her father’s career.
“Their dad is very modest about his accomplishments,” said John McClendon, Roger’s father and Deja’s grandfather. “Bragging about himself was never something that was a part of his makeup, even as a young high school player and even as a college player.”
Instead, John and his wife, Deborah, have taken it upon themselves to inform their grandchildren about the family history. John recalled a time when Deja’s brother, Marquis, saw a clipping from a 1986 Sports Illustrated article that highlighted the nation’s top shooters. The players featured were shown in photo illustrations shooting a ball from outer space. Roger’s illustration shows him in the air in front of the moon, mid-shot, about to release the ball.
“I remember Marquis said, ‘Woah, I didn’t know that my dad was a basketball superstar,’ ” John McClendon laughed.
Deja remembered another time when a young fan asked her father for his autograph while the family was at King’s Island, an amusement park near Cincinnati.
“I was like, ‘I don’t understand, why do you want my dad’s autograph?’ ” Deja recalled with a wide smile.
But just because Roger didn’t talk about his playing days, doesn’t mean they didn’t have an influence on his children.
Deja, the oldest of four, was involved in sports at a young age.
“I think the fact that his life was always centralized in sports got me started early with that mindset,” Deja said. “We’d play catch, things kind of like boys do. We’d always be playing sports, always trying new games.”
She played sports so much, in fact, that the first word to ever come out of her mouth was “ball.”
Despite all of his feats, though, Roger didn’t force basketball upon Deja or her siblings. Instead, he let his children try multiple sports and decide which one stuck.
Deja, who was born in Cincinnati and lived there until her family relocated to Lousville, Ky. when she was about 2, played basketball briefly, but it didn’t last past fifth grade. Deja said she isn’t a pushy kind of person and didn’t like the contact.
“It was to make my dad happy because he loves the game,” Deja said. “And we’d shoot all the time, jump shots, free throws, and I’d play with him.”
She played a variety of other sports, including gymnastics, soccer, volleyball and tennis, which she admitted was actually her best sport. Deja played tennis up until high school, when she opted for volleyball because of the attraction of a team-sport atmosphere.
She was pretty good at it, too.
Eventually, she garnered interest from competitive club coaches in the Louisville area. She started playing for the Kentucky-Indiana Volleyball Academy (KIVA) when she was 14 and needless to say, she loved it.
All in the family
The similarities seem endless.
Whether it’s their lean bodies, their great jumping ability or their explosiveness, there are many things John McClendon sees when he watches his granddaughter play on the volleyball court that remind him of his son’s playing days on the hardwood.
“It’s almost uncanny,” said John McClendon, who is a philosophy professor at Michigan State. “The certain ways in which they take the first step, their vertical leap, timing, and balance, and quickness that he used in basketball that we see her doing almost in a similar way in volleyball.”
But their mannerisms are by no means the only similarities. And some of the correlations are just eerie.
Roger was a McDonald’s All-American in 1984 alongside the best high school basketball players of his year, including the likes of Kansas great Danny Manning.
Deja was an Under Armour All-American just last year along with the rest of the nation’s highly touted high school volleyball players.
Roger was named the All-State Player of the Year by the Chicago Sun-Times and the The News-Gazette his senior year at Centennial High School in Champaign, Ill., where he was the all-time leading scorer until last season.
Deja was the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year her senior year at DuPont Manual High School.
Roger’s white jersey lettered with “Champaign” in blue and gold trim and the No. 12 across the front is retired at his high school.
A red banner with a picture of a white volleyball jersey with the No. 8 marks the only retired volleyball jersey in the gym at Deja’s alma mater.
While at Cincinnati, one of Roger’s most memorable performances came against Louisville at Freedom Hall in January 1986. The sharpshooter went off for 35 points against the Cardinals, marching his team to the upset win. At the end of the season, in which Louisville defeated Duke to win the national title, Cincinnati’s win at Freedom Hall would turn out to be Louisville’s only home loss of the season.
Deja helped led her club team to a championship in 2008 at Freedom Hall. Being back in that facility, Roger said, “brought back memories.”
Roger, who is third in Cincinnati history in field goals made, said he sees a lot of himself in Deja, athletically. The most noticeable similarities, he said, are her intense focus on the court, her ability to make her teammates feel relaxed with her constant smile, and her explosiveness. Like him, Deja is also very team-oriented, Roger said.
“I think most great players, if you think about it, put the team ahead of themselves,” Roger said, adding that in high school he was always a “pass first” player. “That’s a trait I think that Deja exudes.”
The “Student” athlete
Though Roger had a great collegiate career, he never played in the NBA. Roger said the draft had recently been reduced from seven rounds to three and his year was guard heavy. Roger added that he had just an “average” senior season.
To go along with that, Roger had one year remaining in his five-year electrical and computer engineering program. Roger’s parents had always emphasized the importance of academics in their children and Roger always took that to heart.
After he wasn’t drafted, he had a difficult choice to make.
“I could go over and chase the NBA, CBA [Continental Basketball Association], overseas professionally, or come back and finish my engineering degree,” Roger said. “And that was a tough choice for me at the time, I put so much energy into the engineering degree that I wanted to finish it out.”
Though Roger admits it was tough to give up the sport he loved, the decision he made was for the long-term. And it paid off.
Roger was recently promoted to Chief Sustainability Officer for YUM! Brands, Inc., a restaurant company that oversees KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and Long John Silver’s. He travels the globe and is responsible for reducing the environmental impact and how the company, based in Louisville, grows its business.
Deja has been raised on similar principles as Roger, stressing the importance of the “student” part of the term student-athlete.
The McClendons also value family, which is why Roger, along with his wife Suzanne and their other three children who are involved in various sports, has already been to a number of Penn State volleyball matches, despite a busy schedule. And in that short time, they have impressed Deja’s teammates.
“They have great values, morals, everything,” Penn State senior co-captain Alyssa D’Errico said. “And they’re just great people. The athletic side is a plus and that’s something that obviously we appreciate here. I can’t say anything bad about their family because they’re such incredible people.”
Deja’s play has caught the eyes of many people, as well.
Through 14 Big Ten matches, Deja is 10th in the conference, and first among freshmen, in kills. The potential for Penn State to have its second straight Big Ten Freshman of the Year, and eighth in nine years, are in no way out of the realm of possibility.
But Deja, just like her father, is modest. When asked to describe the strengths and weakness of her game, Deja began to ponder her many strengths before she replied: “Let’s start with the weaknesses.”
The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree.