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Basketball's African-American Forefathers Take Center Court in Exhibit

By Gustavo Solis | March 13, 2014 11:49am
  A new exhibit at the New York Historical Society celebrates the African-American basketball teams, players, and culture that came long before the NBA.
Black Fives
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UPPER WEST SIDE — Almost 100 years before New Yorkers could root for the Knicks and Nets, they had the Smart Set Athletic, The Rens, St. Christopher, the All Stars and the Incorporators.

A new exhibit at the New York Historical Society opening Friday celebrates "The Black Fives" — the dozens of African-American basketball teams that played in New York City and elsewhere from the 1900s to the 1950s, when the NBA integrated black players. 

The exhibit — which runs from March 14 to July 20 — is the result of years of research by Claude Johnson, founder of Black Fives Foundation, who first began hunting for the history of African-American basketball teams while working for NBA Properties in 1996, when the league celebrated its 50-year anniversary. 

“There was almost no mention of African-American teams," Johnson said. "There was an 800-page encyclopedia that only devoted three pages to African-American teams. I thought, 'That couldn't be right.'"

African-American basketball teams also got short shrift in the 50th anniversary documentary "NBA at 50" released by TNT with help from the NBA, he said. The documentary touched briefly on basketball's origins as an academic sport, and then jumped to 1946 when the league began to take shape. There were no mentions of the Black Fives.

"They didn't do it intentionally," Johnson said. "They just didn't know."

That’s when his quest began.

Johnson spoke to the NBA’s historian, reached out to curators at the Basketball Hall of Fame, and sought the help of reference librarians at the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. Still, Johnson could not find a collective history of African-American teams.

Johnson then looked through clippings from African-American newspapers to search for names of former players and managers, using Ancestry.com to look up living relatives of "The Black Fives"-era players.

The name is a reference to the five starting players on each all-African-American team, which sprang up in NYC, Washington, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlantic City, Cleveland and other areas where there was a sizeable population of African-American fans.

Johnson also started collecting artifacts from that time period, including shoes, tickets and other memorabilia.

“You would go online and find stuff that no one wanted,” Johnson said of his frequent eBay searches. “We found the earliest known in-arena giveaway.”

The giveaway, a gold-painted medal, was from a 1915 game between Harlem’s St. Christopher Club and Washington D.C.’s Howard University team. It was created by the same company that made the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Back then, teams played in different weight classes determined by their average weight. A team with an average player weight heavier than 125 pounds was considered a heavyweight. Players shot the ball into an actual bucket and the referee would have to recover the ball and hold a tip-off after each field goal, he found.

Some of the biggest arenas could fit 5,000 to 6,000 fans, and after the game the court would turn into a dance floor for a big post-game party, Johnson said.

The exhibit will feature jerseys, photographs, ticket stubs, basketballs, and sneakers made by Nike and Converse.

“It will have something for everyone,” Johnson said.