The NCAA this year is celebrating 75 years of March Madness. Before it became an overhyped trademark, and before it became a behemoth cash cow for everyone but the players, the annual tourney for decades was a White-only affair. The celebrating hoopla shouldn’t overlook this fact. Claude Johnson founded the Greenwich, Conn.-based Black Fives Foundation in 2001. It is named for the number of Black players on the court and the basketball league of the same name that ran for nearly 50 years (1904-1950), at least three decades before the Negro Leagues. It also was a clear affront to the racially segregated unwritten rule that limited the number of players of color allowed on the court (two at home, one on the road), a rule that existed in the NBA, its forerunner the National Basketball League, and in college hoops well into the 1960s.
“I first became interested in the history, and then I began to realize that no one else really knew about this history,” recalls Johnson. “I went to the Hall of Fame [in Springfield, Mass.], and no one knew anything about these early teams.”
During NBA All-Star Weekend a couple of weeks ago, Edwin Henderson was announced as a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (HOF)
Class of 2013, voted in by the Early African American Pioneers Committee, established in 2011.
The HOF is far behind recognizing the pre-1950 Black players, states Johnson, who points out that only two players and a team and its owner are already there. “At one point they asked me what I think should be done,” he remembers. “I said, ‘You should form a special committee just like Cooperstown did with the Negro Leagues players.”
He’s referring to a Baseball Hall of Fame special group that eventually recommended almost 20 pre-integration Black baseball players for induction.“This special committee was formed to help address the fact that there were early pioneers that the Hall of Fame [was] overlooking,” explains Johnson.
Henderson (1883-1977) is credited for introducing basketball to Black students in Washington, D.C. after he learned the game as a student at Harvard in 1904. He formed the first Black athletic conference, the Interscholastic Athletic Association, and convinced Howard University to adopt his Washington 12th Streeter squad as their first varsity basketball team in 1910. He’s known as ‘The Godfather of Black Basketball,” says Johnson.
Johnson says his Black Fives website has a list “of the most deserving [Black players] for enshrinement” in the Hall. “It’s got about 10 names on it. Some are players and some are contributors. They should all go in.”
Names such as Clarence “Fats” Jenkins (1898-1968): a member and captain of the original Renaissance team formed in 1923 — the 1933 Rens are in the Hall of Fame as a team. “He was compared to the best White player” at the time, notes Johnson. “He was with the Rens in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, and he played in the 1910s as well. He probably [is] the most consistent all-around best player of the ones who have not been recognized.”
Names such as William “Dolly” King (1916-1969): a three-sport star at Long Island University in the late 1930s who left in the middle of their 1941 undefeated championship season to play professionally. King also was a member of the all-Black Dayton Rens that joined the NBL in 1948, a league that didn’t draft Blacks at the time. King, a high school classmate of Howard Cosell, is featured among the six historic pictures of the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn from the early 1900s on “granite-like canvases on either side of the facility’s main entrance” inside the Brooklyn Nets’ new arena. “Cosell said, ‘King was one of the best well-built athletes I’ve ever seen in all my years in sports,” claims Johnson.
Johnson says that researching the pre- 1950 Black players “is a labor of love.” He adds that Henderson’s selection “is important for me [because] that means that they are considering going all the way back to the beginning and working their way forward from them. And as they are working their way forward, they are going to run into a number of other players. “As an advocate, I applaud it, and I think it’s wonderful. But why do only one per year?” asks Johnson. “We should hurry up and acknowledge these pioneers once and for all. It was unfair for them to be overlooked in the first place.”
Did you know…?
Clarence “Fats” Jenkins as a teenager played opposite of this player at the other forward spot on the St. Christopher Club team. Who is he? (Answer in next week’s “View.”)