When The Black Fives Ruled Basketball: How An Exhibit Highlights A Hidden History


Headed to its last day at the New York Historical Society on July 20, there is a fascinating look at a relatively unexplored account on basketball and America itself.

Prior to the formation of the NBA in the late 1940s, pro hoops had its ebbs and flows in establishing the sport as much as an athletic pursuit as an entertainment vehicle. Basketball in the first half of the 20th century had the same successes and failures of the more popular sport of baseball, both coming at the hands of segregation. Excluded from playing with all-white teams, African-American teams were formed and thrived to the point that, not unlike the Negro League squads in baseball, they drew crowds equal to and greater than their white counterparts, including the Original Celtics.

Claude Johnson is the founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, an organization that preserves and promotes the history of many of these teams and players, including Naismith Hall of Famers Tarzan Cooper, Pop Gaines and coach/owner Bob Douglas. While working for the NBA’s licensing team, Johnson came across Fives right around the time the league released its exhaustive "The Official NBA Encyclopedia" in late 1996 (the year of the league's 50th Anniversary). He noted that despite its breadth of the Association’s history to that point, there was very little said about these important forerunners to the league’s existence.

Since March, the Historical Society has hosted the Black Fives exhibition as a celebration of these pioneers. After observing the display, TSFJ spoke with Johnson about the road not only to the prestigious platform, but the evolution of Black Fives awareness since he read that seemingly incomplete passage nearly 14 years ago.

TSFJ: You’ve told the story often over the years, but it’s one worth telling. How did you learn about and eventually invest yourself into the Black Fives?

Johnson: Around that time of the Encyclopedia, I read "A Hard Road to Glory" by Arthur Ashe, which was about the journey of the African-American athlete. It wasn’t totally in-depth, but you have to understand that back then, there weren’t a ton of newspaper articles and, of course, no search engines. These guys had to look at microfilm and find ways to get all this information. The section of basketball intrigued me because at the very beginning, he listed all of these teams that were just bewildering to me like the Smart Set Athletic Club in Brooklyn, the Loendi Big Five (Pittsburgh). Then I see this other book (the Encyclopedia) where everyone knows about the Globetrotters, but I just started learning about the Rens (the short name of the New York Renaissance aka the Harlem Rens).

My younger brother had been in the footwear design business since college, and he was at Converse at the time. They had a satellite office in New York City, which was there to keep a pulse of what was going on in the streets, and he was their pulse guy. Through him, we developed an interest in the Rens. There was John Isaacs and Pop Gates, who were still alive at the time. Somehow, we found out where he was, and we got to know him right around the time he was inducted to the New York Basketball Hall of Fame. At the same time, Converse put out this poster, which was an advertisement of one of their shoes. It had a photograph of the Rens posing, but they didn’t get Mr. Isaacs’ permission. I ask my brother, “Did you know about this?” and he goes “No.” We go to Mr. Isaacs with this, and we were aware of the fact that this wasn’t fair (or legal).

In my days at the NBA, I became friends with one of their head counsel. He had since left, was working at another firm, so I called him up and asked if he could help Mr. Isaacs out pro-bono. They had worked out a settlement with Converse, and Mr. Isaacs actually made off with more money than he ever did playing. It wasn’t much, but he wanted to share it with the descendants of the other players in the photo, although he didn’t have to.

TSFJ: So even though this exploration sort of began as a legal matter, at this point, it became more than doing right by Mr. Isaacs, but about doing right by a relatively hidden history. What happened that helped further along the business of Fives?

Johnson: Over the years, I would talk to him and started becoming more and more intrigued. When I was learning about Black Fives, I started researching and using my licensing background to realize that there’s going to be a business opportunity someday. I applied for trademarking for all the names and logos, starting in a very humble way, then eventually started using my savings because each trademark application is $350. I had left Nike for other opportunities, but during sick days, holidays, whatever, I was working on Black Fives. After leaving the last position, I focused on it full time and started traveling around the country. Two years!

Eventually, my wife and I went to the All-Star Game in Atlanta, and companies were interested in Black Fives. It wasn’t fully developed enough at the time, but my wife said, “Why don’t you do it? You know enough about this business.”

Claude Johnson, Founder and Executive Director of Black Fives Foundation.

About said experience, Johnson quickly became affiliated with the hip-hop world in a most unexpected way thanks to the reproduction of uniforms of these teams. The throwback jersey craze of the early to mid-2000s was arguably the defining fashion of music videos in the era, yet it wasn’t just about the threads of seemingly obscure teams like the Rens or the Vandal A.C. Though producers and agents called him day and night for the merchandise, he found more value in teaching the history behind each logo.

TSFJ: So the jerseys are selling, you’re fielding orders left and right at a frenetic pace, and the awareness of this time increases. Yet, you decided to cease manufacturing. What happened?

Johnson: Teachers are calling; schools are calling. I started realizing that there’s something bigger than the merchandise. Different people I would talk to, I got the sense that they weren’t as interested in the gear as they were thankful that someone was rekindling this history. At no charge, I just started going to any school that wanted me to come. These kids thought I was famous because I would show them photos of rappers wearing the jerseys. After that, then they started listening to the stories of these teams and players.

Eventually, it got to the point that I knew it had to evolve into something else. Black Fives Inc. was about revenues, staying in the black, collecting, etc. It just felt like there was something more meaningful in the long run. I always had this idea of a fund where we’d put money into the communities where the Fives-era teams once played, but it was just a great idea in theory. Three years ago, I started talking more about creating a nonprofit foundation, and I decided to dissolve Black Fives Inc. — just give all the assets, all the intellectual properties to the foundation. Black Fives Inc. just wasn’t going to work as a financial model. When you put your momentum into something, the universe meets you halfway. All of the sudden, things just took off because it’s easier for people to understand supporting a cause. It’s a completely different energy from “will you buy something” for someone. Somehow around the time, someone I met as a curator from the Barclays Center called for images because they wanted some Brooklyn-based basketball history. Then, the museum called and asked for artifacts because they would have loved to put together an exhibit. It took two years to set this up, and it was a lot of work into it.

TSFJ: So in the two years of crafting the exhibit, what was the most surprising thing you found?

Johnson: Really, it’s that no one knows about this stuff and it’s all right under our noses. Look at the Manhattan Casino where so many of the famed Black Fives teams played. I went down to the municipal archives of the city to confirm the lot location and the like to confirm the existence of these places. The casino was owned by two Harlem-born Jewish brothers, and it was caddy-cornered from the Polo Grounds (Note: This block is occupied by a parking lot and residential housing and lies south of the famous Rucker Park).

TSFJ: To note, one of the more surprising finds were the photos and limited records on the women’s game. There were many unnamed players photographed, but there were a couple of teams higlighted. What is actually known about these women and these teams? 

Johnson: The very earliest documentation of basketball almost always included the social aspect of the women’s teams, the sister teams to those clubs. In those times, black newspapers would sometimes put basketball in the social section because of the clubhouses. Sometimes, the clubhouses would be in a brownstone in Harlem where they would have these social functions where the ladies would decorate and host. When you’d read the papers and you’d see the names, you’d see that these women were also players on the basketball team.

What was great to discover was that there were teams like the Philadelphia Tribune Girls, who won 11 straight world championships starting in the 1930s, or the Club Store Co-Eds, which were nicknamed the Chocolate Co-Eds, out of Chicago that is believed to be the first barnstorming African-American women’s team. Those are little gems of information that when you read about them, you just know that there’s so much more to it, but maybe that history just isn’t around. One of the things I hope is that when people see these photographs, somebody will step up and say, “Hey, that’s my grandmother!” and it happens all the time.

TSFJ: Though coming to a close, what do you hope museum goers take from the exhibit?

Johnson: The exhibition is actually a very "activist" exhibition. It’s not just passive, a bunch of random objects with labels. It’s meant to take you through story, a narrative, a journey. The visitor is supposed to leave asking, “Why didn’t I know more about this?” There should be more of these pioneers in the Hall of Fame, there should be more recognition for these teams and there’s more than meets the eye.

Within that history, isn’t it surprising how many collaborations there were where white people were involved? It’s perfectly timely now because, well, you have this idiot talking about I don’t want black people at my games. It’s just terrible for business.

TSFJ: Yes, finally on that note with Donald Sterling, not long after the exhibit opened, you wrote about 11 separate collaborations that helped some of these teams thrive, even one involving the grandfather of WWE Chairman Vince McMahon. In the April post, you essentially offered the exiled owner of the Los Angeles Clippers an invitation to not only check out the exhibit, but to learn the history of mixed-race partnerships for the sport of basketball.

Johnson: I was trying to reinforce that it isn’t black and white; it’s complex. It’s not as simple as “there were all these black teams, then there was the NBA, then they let black people play and the rest is history.” Some doors opened, but some closed and it was bittersweet. There’s that poignant story on Bob Douglas and the Rens. The Rens could have been a founding team in the NBA. They were on the doorstep, but that didn’t happen. If the Rens had won the 1948 World Championship, then that fall, Douglas would have had more leverage with the NBL and they would have invited him in. Then, he wouldn’t have had to accept the existing record of 2-17* or maybe would have had some other caveat to get into the playoffs.

(*In 1948, the Rens moved to Dayton, Ohio, and became the Dayton Rens in the integrated National Basketball League. They replaced the team that folded in the middle of the season, the Detroit Vagabond Kings, and inherited their poor record. When the NBL merged with the all-white Basketball Association of America to form the NBA, the Rens were excluded from joining the new league.)

There is plenty more to learn from Johnson and the Black Fives era that preceded the NBA. For more, go to BlackFives.org, and if you are in the NYC metropolitan area, the New York Historical Society will host the exhibit until Sunday, July 20.

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