King later played for a number of Black Fives teams, but the barriers of racial segregation robbed him of the chance to shine in an integrated league in 1950. By the time the NBA and NBL began recruiting players of color, King was past his prime, and unlike in baseball, the new league didn’t promote its diverse history. So like many others, King’s work on the court became mostly buried until Johnson began to passionately research the Black Fives in 2001.
“I was researching the Black Fives on the side and was eventually laid off with a severance package. Right after 9/11, I was able to do the Black Fives Foundation as if it was my job,” Johnson said. “I created family trees in Ancestry.com to list the players’ other jobs, like postal worker or a porter. However, on Ancestry, once you make a family tree public, anyone can see it. I started getting messages from people asking me why I was interested in their grandfather, and I’d say I was doing Black Fives research. Many times, they didn’t even know about their family member’s involvement.”
On Sunday, the Black Fives photo installment will be formally introduced, when the Nets host the San Antonio Spurs at the Barclays Center. Johnson hopes these images will illuminate this buried bit of history and inspire others to be as excited as he is about the lost league’s legacy.
“I wasn’t hoping somebody would discover [my work], but it validates the research. It’s also a way to keep this legacy going,” Johnson said. “This presentation is the end of a journey but the beginning of being able to motivate, inspire and teach kids.”
Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.