Pre-NBA Black players rescued from history’s dustbin

Claude Johnson
Courtesy of Facebook

Another View

Before the NBA, Black basketball players brazed a trail, battled discrimination, and were virtually marginalized from the game’s invention in 1891 to the racial integration of all-White professional leagues in the 1950s.

Dozens of Black teams, often called “fives,” flourished as barnstorming teams and often dominated White opponents to the tune of an 83% winning percentage. The Black Five era (1923 to 1948) is barely known among today’s hoops fans.

Claude Johnson founded the Black Fives Foundation in 2013. His new book, “The Black Fives: The Epic Story of Basketball’s Forgotten Era” (Abrams Press, May 2022), is the result of two decades of work. During these years Johnson researched, preserved, exhibited, taught, and honored many overlooked pre-NBA Black players, making sure that they get their rightful due in basketball history.

“It took me years to understand how to actually weave [the book] together and what it meant, and the genesis of it all, like when did this all began,” explained Johnson in a recent MSR phone interview. “I didn’t just want to say, ‘Hey, check this out.’ But here’s how it started from the inception.

“I started with a description of what’s called a narrative nonfiction,” he continued. “It talks about these pioneers as people, not as statistics or milestones. I try to get into who were they, what were they thinking about. Why did they make the decisions they made? What was the context where they come from?

“I start out with a description of this man [Will Anthony Madden] who was perhaps the greatest African American pioneer in pre-NBA history,” Johnson explained. “Yet he’s buried in an unmarked grave.” 

He looked at scores of game stories published in Black newspapers and other accounts for his first book, nearly 500 pages of text and 85 full-color photos. “It weighs like 28 ounces, which is more than the regulation basketball,” he joked.

A former veteran of corporate America holding management and executive positions during a 20-year career, Johnson chose a better path and became a stay-at-home dad, raising three sons living in Greenwich, Connecticut. He also became fascinated with the history of basketball, especially Black involvement in the sport, and soon discovered a treasure trove of forgotten history waiting to be unearthed and properly presented and preserved.

Courtesy of Black Fives Foundation

“I can’t help but write about Black history,” said Johnson. “If you’re writing about Black basketball history, at some point you have to explain why were Black communities in Northern cities overcrowded, which is one reason why basketball became popular. 

“There was an exodus from the South. If you want to understand it, if you really want to understand it, you have to understand the background.”

This columnist has a copy of The Black Fives. Like pre-integration Black baseball, Black basketball is part of American history. Asked who else he wants to read his book, Johnson said, “I want NBA players to read it. I want NBA coaches to read it, NBA team officials to read it. 

“I also want people who are Black cultural leaders…to read it because it’s as much about Black culture, Black history, as it is about basketball. NCAA basketball coaches should read this so that they’re aware of it so that we can have that conversation with their players.”

The Big East during its annual spring meeting last Thursday announced that it will again recognize and celebrate Black Fives basketball next February.

Johnson is on a five-stop book tour, including June 1 at the Greenwich Library, New York City (June 8), the Naismith Hall of Fame (June 26), and in Portland, Oregon (August 1).

“One of the reasons I wrote this book,” said Johnson, “is to give voice to the voiceless.  That’s a big deal for me.”