Basketball's Forgotten (Black) History

Alpha Physical Culture Club, Harlem NY 1910. ©
Alpha Physical Culture Club, Harlem NY 1910. ©

There's a good 50-year gap in the story of basketball's evolution. We go from the game's invention late in the 19th century and fast forward to the NBA's late-1940s inception. In the interim, though, there were the Black Fives (teams were called "fives" in reference to their five starters).

They were amateur, semi-pro and professional teams sponsored mostly by churches, athletic clubs, social clubs and “colored” YMCAs. The basketball equivalents to baseball's storied Negro League were the Philadelphia Panthers, the Los Angeles Red Devils, the Washington 12 Streeters and many more, including the historic New York Renaissance (Rens). The Rens, from 1923 to 1948, won a dumbfounding 2,588 of 3,117 games and whose watershed rivalry with all-white Original Celtics (of New York) helped put the entire team in the Hall of Fame.

When some yahoo from Atlanta tried to hijack the media with his farmhand idea for an all-white league in today's integrated America, David Aldridge tried to point us to the Black Fives and their forgotten history in his column, directing curious parties to Black Fives, an information treasure chest created and run by Black Fives historian Claude Johnson. Did I go there and spend some quality time reading up on an absolutely essential piece of basketball and African-American history? Of course not. Why? Because history was spoon-fed to me on the boob tube. Now that's shameful.

The Black Fives Era is Americana that needs to be appreciated, promoted and commemorated. People should know about the New York Rens, a team that once won 88 games in 86 days, the best collection of basketball players for two decades. Everyone should know that Jackie Robinson played with the L.A. Red Devils before he made American history and crashed through the MLB color barrier for the Dodgers. We need more than just Bob Douglas, William "Pop" Gates and Charles "Tarzan" Cooper in the Basketball Hall of Fame as either players or contributors. What about contributors like Edwin Henderson, the man many credit for introducing basketball to the black community or Cumberland Posey Jr., the Michael Jordan of the 1910s and first half of the 1920s? It is the basketball Hall of Fame, not the NBA Hall of Fame.


Imagine a Jazz Hall of Fame without Lester Young or Chick Webb. Just as Major League Baseball teams occasionally wear the colors of vintage Negro League teams, we need to see the New York Knicks periodically sporting Rens jerseys and the Chicago Bulls rocking Chicago Roma jerseys.

Before Earl Lloyd broke the NBA's color barrier in 1950, the Knicks made Nathaniel "Sweetwater" Clifton, a former Ren, the first black player to sign an NBA contract. That wasn't a Big Bang; that was an evolution. Before them, there was Hudson Oliver of the Smart Set Athletic Club, the Washington 12 Streeters and Howard University, who dominated the first decade of the 20th century. Later, there was John "Boy Wonder" Isaacs, Chris Dorsey and William "Dolly" King and a host of other cats who barnstormed across the country, inspiring, coaching and mentoring thousands of young black men that, as each generation passed, would soon hit the NBA and morph the predominantly white league into what we see today.

Current players owe it to themselves to investigate how basketball got from the peach basket to today's game. The Black Fives era is an integral part of that.

But it's not race pride that should spur us all to first learn and then spread the word about the Black Fives era; it's that we can't allow all this important history to get buried, as Johnson would say, in an "unmarked grave." It's been there for too long, and it needs a resurrection.


Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM Magazine. He is also a frequent commentator on ESPN.

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