As we approach the wind-down days of Black History Month 2014, it’s refreshing to see other Black contributors besides the usual few names often presented — such as overlooked Black athletes who labored in virtual obscurity during the Jim Crow era.
Thanks to the nonprofit Black Fives Foundation in New York for “tell[ing] the story of the pre-1950 history of African Americans in basketball.” The “Black Fives” name comes from the all-Black basketball teams that played in Brooklyn, Harlem, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Pittsburgh, Newark and Los Angeles.
These teams “ushered in the Harlem Renaissance period, smashed the color barrier in pro basketball and helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement,” wrote founder Claude Johnson on the foundation’s website (www.blackfives.org).
Johnson and director Loren Mendell teamed up with Fox Sports Net, which broadcasts NBA games for 13 teams including the Minnesota Timberwolves, to create a series of 30-second TV vignettes honoring Black Fives era pioneers during Black History Month. They are aired during halftime of the telecasts.
“They [Fox Sports Net] just called out of the blue” last summer, said Johnson in an MSR phone interview. “They were trying to find some new content for Black History Month that involves sports.”
Thirty-five NBA players read scripts co-written by Johnson and Mendell on pioneers selected by Johnson. For example, Los Angeles Clippers guard Chris Paul talks about Hudson “Huddy” Oliver, who won four “Colored Basketball World Championships” with three different all-Black teams (1908-1911).
Timberwolves players Corey Brewer, Dante Cunningham and Kevin Martin were among the participants in the “Original Pioneers” shorts.
“It was interesting,” says Brewer. “It is always good to learn something new in Black history.”
“Honestly it was a privilege to be able to do it,” adds Cunningham, who noted his appreciation for the Black Fives era players who “laid the foundation for me and other young Black males just to be here today. Those things weren’t as easy for them.”
“We now have 30-35 players, some of them major stars, who have some knowledge [of the Black Fives players and teams],” says Johnson. “That’s a great start.” He also praised Fox Sports Net for doing something novel — “the fact that they are even thinking of this idea to get a modern-day player [to] read this script into the camera. The players were very enthusiastic and excited about it. It was all voluntary.”
A year ago, a mural featuring the Black Fives was installed inside the main concourse of the Barclays Center, the home of the Brooklyn Nets. “We have six vintage images of African American basketball teams and players that are Brooklyn-related that are installed permanently in the Barclays Center,” says Johnson proudly. “You can’t escape them when you come into the arena. Everybody sees them.”
Johnson features Black women hoopsters as well, such as the New York Girls (1910-1914), who were the first all-Black female basketball team. “The African American all-women basketball teams sponsored by the Philadelphia Tribune of the 1930s probably were the best team[s] ever, men or women, because they won 11 straight Black national championships in the 1930s and going into the 1940s.”
Both Brewer and Cunningham say if asked they would do the Original Pioneers vignettes again. “There are a lot of things Black people did that people don’t know about. It means a lot to Black culture,” says Brewer.
“It definitely gave me a new perspective… I definitely learned something new,” says Cunningham.
Read “Another View Extra” on this week’s MSR website on our final installment on college sports spending.
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