Once upon a time in New York, Chicago, and other large tightly-packed cities, tuberculosis and pneumonia ran rampant. Nearly 25% of African American deaths at the turn of the 20th century in New York were from tuberculosis.
As one prescription, community leader Conrad Norman and others advocated physical activity. In 1904, Norman established the Alpha Physical Culture Club in Harlem and fielded a basketball team known as the Alpha Big Five.
The Alphas, the Savoy Big Five, the Second Story Morrys, and dozens of other hoops teams thrived during the Black Fives Era – a period of basketball before the NBA launched in 1946 and became integrated four years later. “Fives” is a reference to the five starting players in basketball.
Barred from the Whites-only gymnasiums and athletic clubs, Black Fives teams played in church basements, armories, meeting halls and dance ballrooms. Rather than just isolated basketball games, these bonafide events also involved music and dance before and after games during an age of jazz — a celebration that sounds like NBA All-Star Weekend.
Today, Black NBA players have achieved royalty status around the world. And many of the league’s biggest stars have spoken out forcefully against social injustice during an era of Black Lives Matter. But compared to the storied Negro Leagues of baseball, the history of the Black Fives has largely flown under the radar.
Claude Johnson, a longtime marketing executive who once worked at the NBA, has made it his mission to change that. His Black Fives Foundation focuses on honoring the pre-NBA history of African Americans in hoops. The nonprofit recently entered into a multi-year partnership with Puma in support of Black history education reform, using the legacy of Black basketball to connect the current generation to the past.
“[The Black Fives] played somewhat comparable roles in the Black community to what the Negro Leagues and sandlot baseball had done,” said Rob Ruck, a sports history professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
The Black Fives built community, celebrated culture and created wealth.
Ruck thinks that one reason this history has been slow to surface is that hoops didn’t really grab the American psyche until the Jordan era. “Intelligentsia was fixated on baseball. Novels. Movies. Archives. But there was none of that for basketball. It just didn’t have that grip,” Ruck adds.
Johnson, a Stanford-trained engineer, initially juggled his day job while moonlighting at Schomburg Center in Harlem, combing through archives. He secured much of the foundation’s 1,000 artifacts, including photographs, ticket stubs, laced balls and footwear, through auctions, families of descendants and eBay.
One discovery, Edwin “Teddy” Horne, was a founding member of Smart Set Athletic Club, and father of Lena Horne.
Eventually, Johnson’s hard work started paying off. In 2013, when Barclays Center emerged as the new home for the Brooklyn Nets, over 40 descendants from the Smart Set Athletic Club, Spartan Girls Club (an all Black women’s team), and others were honored. Life-size murals were added to the concourse of the new arena.
One year later, Johnson served as guest curator of the “Black Fives” exhibition at New-York Historical Society. But as far as a full-throated integration of Black Fives history into the NBA, this hasn’t happened yet.
“I can’t say I have a ton of explicit conversations about the origins of Black basketball,” says Sherrie Deans, the acting chief operating officer of the National Basketball Players Association and executive director of the NBPA Foundation.
Deans is doing her part to unearth some of this history, including funding a documentary on Earl Lloyd, the first Black American to play in the NBA. She also approved an NBPA Foundation grant to support Johnson’s work at the Black Fives Foundation.
To date, 12 players from the Black Fives Era have been posthumously inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, including Cumberland Posey Jr. of Pittsburgh, an all-around athlete also enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
“The mystic wand of Posey ruled basketball with as much eclat as ‘Rasputin’ dominated the Queen of all the Russias,” so declared Harlem publication The Interstate Tattler in 1929.
Sam Presti, the wunderkind general manager of the Oklahoma City Thunder, who drafted Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Russell Westbrook, wants to elevate the history of the Fives.
Presti became interested in the late John McClendon, the pioneering Black basketball coach, and invited Johnson to Oklahoma City to share the history of the Black Fives to Thunder players and staff.
“I think the history is so rich and meaningful that there would be a strong interest in taking it to maybe a broader and a centralized level, but I can’t speak for the league office,” Presti said.
The Brooklyn Nets, Washington Wizards and New Orleans Pelicans have also expressed interest in Black Fives, according to Johnson.
Johnson believes the constant movement in today’s game — especially to free up outside shooters or to set up the pick and roll — was born during the Black Fives Era. And while younger fans claim that LeBron James could have been dominant in football, Jackie Robinson actually played professional basketball as a member of the Los Angeles Red Devils. Some historians say he shot a Spalding even better than he hit a Rawlings.
Back at that Black Fives Barclay’s event, John B. King Jr., the secretary of education under former President Barack Obama, honored his late uncle Dolly King, a star for the New York Renaissance. From 1923 to 1948, mainly playing on the road against all White competition, the “Rens” won a whopping 83% of their nearly 3,000 games.
For King, the Black Fives represent Black excellence and a reminder that while racism has always been a reality of the Black experience in America, it is not the sole reality.
“It’s important to hear the story of the Black Fives,” King said. “The narrative of the African-American experience is about facing these barriers, building vibrant alternate institutions, and then overcoming racism to demand a seat at the table.”