By Claude Johnson
The racist comments by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling were not only horrendously offensive and disturbing. They also reflect the shocking ignorance that still exists of the historically important role African Americans played in the growth, the expansion, and the business success of the game going back some 50 years prior to the formation of the National Basketball Association in 1949.
The NBA’s decision to ban Sterling for life is exactly what was needed, and Commissioner Adam Silver’s leadership sends a message that goes far beyond the league. As it should, because the NBA, though it is its own business enterprise, is also interwoven into national and global culture.
In addition to being banned, though, the disgraced owner also should be forced to visit the first-ever Black Fives Exhibition now on display at the New-York Historical Society in New York City. In one visit, he could gain a deep appreciation for the rich pre-NBA history of pioneering African Americans who helped pave the way for basketball as we know it today.
But why stop there? We invite the league to send all of its owners as well as its own executives, managers, team officials, players, licensees, sponsors, and media partners. I would be glad to give any of them a personal tour.
Running through July 20, 2014, the exhibition features nearly 200 rare and historically important items from the Black Fives Foundation’s collection of artifacts, ephemera, memorabilia, objects, photographs, images, and other material relating to the period.
Each item tells a unique story in a comprehensive narrative that takes visitors on a journey through each phase of the racially segregated period in basketball known as the Black Fives Era—early basketball, amateur ideals, semi-pro opportunities, professionalism, Depression Era, and racial integration. This period spanned from the early 1900s through 1950, when the NBA’s first three black players—Earl Lloyd, Charles “Chuck” Cooper, and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton—joined the league.
Lloyd, from West Virginia State University, became the first African American to play in a game. Cooper, from Duquesne University, became the first black player ever selected in an NBA Draft, as the first pick in the second round, by the Boston Celtics. Clifton, a former star with the New York Rens, Dayton Metropolitans, and Harlem Globetrotters, was the first the three to sign an NBA contract. Materials on all three pioneers are included in the exhibition.
Every owner, every league official, every player, everyone affiliated with the sport at all levels, and every fan should know this history inside and out, to truly appreciate what they have today. Basketball is a beautiful game but it can get ugly fast (any doubters?) without constant stewardship.
Stewardship starts by knowing its history. Its real history. And that is available right now at New York City’s oldest museum, right there on Central Park West, at West 77th Street. It’s the building with the statue of Abraham Lincoln out front.
We should try to teach Donald Sterling that blacks and whites have been working together in basketball for a very long time.
Here are 11 major black-white collaboration in the sport going back 50 years before the NBA.
Black basketball teams such as the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, the Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem, and the St. Christopher Club of Manhattan were playing Caucasian teams on a routine basis more than 40 years prior to the racial integration of the NBA, since before 1910.
Upon acknowledging the success of the Smart Set’s 1908-09 season, the New York Age, which at the time was the country’s most widely circulated black newspaper, wrote, “they have also competed against many of the crack white teams of Brooklyn and have made a very creditable showing.”
Numerous items from those early African American teams and more are on display within the exhibition.
Throughout the 1910s, the mecca of black basketball was a large ballroom on West 155th Street at Eight Avenue in Harlem called the Manhattan Casino. Its owners were two Harlem-born Jewish entrepreneurs, the brothers Louis and Eddie Waldron, who had established their uptown fame in the early 1900s as proprietors of a notorious dance hall near Columbia University—”notorious” for such violations as Sunday dancing, serving liquor without meals, and allowing unaccompanied women to patronize.
Throughout the decade, all of the country’s top black basketball teams preferred playing their games at the Manhattan Casino and nearly every Colored Basketball World’s Championship was decided on its court. Nicknamed the “People’s Pleasure Palace,” it was also a popular site for a wide variety of social, community, and political activities.
The place comfortably seated 6,000 patrons for events, had over 6,000 square feet of dance floor beneath a colossal crystal chandelier under a sky-blue ceiling, and included a bandstand, private function rooms, dressing rooms for entertainers and athletes, and numerous bars throughout.
Onlookers could ascend a gold-banister staircase to the balcony, where fifty-one luxurious velvet-embellished private boxes ringed the proceedings below. One could also head out back to the Casino’s open-air picnic park or its festive summer beer garden.
Enterprising black basketball promoters booked these large spaces like these not just as playing venues for their teams–which were otherwise barred from whites-only gymnasiums–but also to promote local African American musicians, whose orchestras would perform before, during, and after competitions until well past midnight. That is why many of the early black basketball ads read,Basket Ball and Dance. Among the artifacts displayed in the Black Fives exhibit is a rare original full-page 1911 advertisement for the famous Harlem venue as well as original 1910s sheet music for amarch & two step tune called, “Manhattan Casino.”
During the 1910s, the all-black Loendi Big Five of Pittsburgh led by superstar player and promoter Cumberland Posey, Jr., collaborated with the Coffey Club, an all-Jewish team, to stage lucrative “rivalry” match ups at the local 6,000-capacity Union Labor Temple as well as throughout Western Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia.
These were designed to maximize gate receipts by leveraging the racial hysteria of the times. A variety of Loendi and Pittsburgh-related materials are included in the exhibition.
In 1922, the first fully-professional African American basketball team (with full-year guarantee exclusive player contracts) was white-owned, by boxing and wrestling promoters Eddie and Roderick “Jess” McMahon, who were proprietors of the Commonwealth Casino and Sporting Club, located on West 134th Street at Madison Avenue in Harlem. (Jess McMahon is the grandfather of WWE chairman Vince McMahon.)
The owners were well-loved uptown because they allowed mixed-race prizefights when leading boxing promoter “Tex” Rickard of Madison Square Garden refused. Their basketball team was called the Commonwealth Big Five, and a beautiful James Van Der Zee photograph of that squad is part of the exhibition.
The Harlem Globe Trotters began in Chicago as a team of former basketball stars from Wendell Philips High School on the city’s South Side. In 1928, they used the name Savoy Big Five, sponsored by the nearby Savoy Ballroom, a popular dance hall. That team split up the same year, resulting in a new squad called the Globe Trotters.
In early 1929, Abe Saperstein, a local Jewish parks department worker with some experience scheduling basketball games, was engaged as the Globe Trotters’ booking agent, because, as one team member reportedly put it, “he has a white face.” To signal that this was an African American team just like the more well-known New York Renaissance Big Five, the first black-owned fully-professional basketball team, Saperstein added the name of the country’s African American cultural capital, and the Harlem Globe Trotters were born.
Saperstein eventually took over ownership of the ‘Trotters. He was a brilliant, audacious, adaptable entrepreneur who saw basketball as entertainment – winning justified showmanship, which was far more lucrative than was winning alone. Saperstein strove for the amusement of whites and sought approval from no one. His trademark was staging the best shows as measured by laughs and publicity. Though often criticized for exploiting his players and for reinforcing black stereotypes, he also expanded the sport by creating fascination with the game and seeing its future as a global or wide-reaching attraction.
Numerous items relating to the Globe Trotters are in the exhibition, including newspaper ads, event programs, yearbooks, photographs, ticket stubs, and rare unused tickets.
The Loendi model was carefully observed and then strategically adopted by black basketball promoter and sportsman Robert “Bob” Douglas in 1923 when he formed the New York Renaissance. The New York “Rens” as they were known, collaborated closely for decades with the New York Original Celtics, the Philadelphia SPHAs, the Oshkosh All Stars, and other all-white teams.
In fact, entering the 1930s, despite the economic hardships of the times, Douglas found he could book many more games and make more money, in front of more fans, by hitting the road with long, profitable trips to the towns and cities of the Northeast, Midwest, and South.
These predominantly white localities were hungry not only for quality basketball and what they considered newfangled entertainment but also for the economic impact of the famous visitors, as fans drawn from miles around would spend money with local merchants and among themselves through enthusiastic betting.
In short, the Rens as well as the Globe Trotters and other lesser known all-black teams were mobile economic stimuli. Their successful “barnstorming” business model—traveling, and getting paid game-by-game along the way—was highly influential throughout the Great Depression. The exhibit contains a large number of items related to traveling African American squads and white teams they played.
Formed in 1931, the Oshkosh All Stars of Oshkosh, Wisconsin played against the New York Rens for the first time during a two-game series in February, 1936. The series drew so many spectators eager to see the Rens that local promoter and team manager Lon Darling decided to do it again in 1937. This time the two teams staged a five-game series, which Darling and the local papers dubbed the “World Series Of Basketball,” to crown the world’s champion.
“It was a money-maker,” recalled former Rens star John Isaacs. Although racism and Jim Crow restrictions plagued other parts of America, according to Isaacs the Rens were able to stay in hotels and eat at restaurants in Wisconsin like everyone else. Still, according to Isaacs, the Rens strategy was always the same. “Get 10 points as quickly as you could, because those were the 10 points the refs were gonna take away.” The five-game series was played in Oshkosh, Racine, Green Bay, Ripon, and Madison. Each venue saw huge attendance. In local newspapers, race as a point of difference was rarely mentioned; it seemed to matter only as a descriptive term. Any hostilities were reserved for on the court.
The All Stars were also building a case to join the National Basketball League, which was still only just an idea at the time. Though the Rens won the 1937 series, 3 games to 2, Oshkosh would join the NBL the following season as founding members. Moreover, the country realized the potential of a pro basketball tournament.
Within two years the Chicago Herald-American newspaper staged the inaugural World Professional Basketball Tournament, an invitational for the country’s top pro teams. The Rens won that tournament, beating none other than their familiar rival, the Oshkosh All Stars. Several rare Rens-Oshkosh artifacts are in the exhibition, including a ticket stub from that 1937 Renaissance vs. Oshkosh seriesand a scrapbook kept by an avid Oshkosh All Stars fan who, as evidenced from its contents, also greatly admired the Rens.
In 1939, the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball was held in Chicago, where it was staged annually until 1948. The event was sponsored by the Chicago Herald-American, the brainchild of its white sports editor, Edward W. Cochrane. The New York Rens won the title in 1939, followed by the Globe Trotters in 1940. “At the time there were no less than a score of professional basketball teams, all advertising themselves as world’s champions,” Cochrane remembered in 1941. The tournament was born “out of the chaos of these conflicting claims,” he said. Following the departure of Cochrane in 1943, the tournament was run by another white newspaperman named Leo Fischer.
There had never been any event like the World Championship of Professional Basketball in the history of the sport, and pro basketball was “proven” during this tournament, with record-breaking attendances and revenues as well as the beginning of “big-time” newspaper coverage for the pro game. The clear-sighted inclusion of two all-black teams that were truly the best in in the game gave the tournament legitimacy in its infancy. It also gave pro basketball solid momentum that lasted through the founding of the NBA and beyond. The exhibition features numerous tickets stubs as well as the complete set of annual event programs.
In 1941, Max Rosenblum, the Jewish owner of Rosenblum’s Clothing Store on Euclid Street in downtown Cleveland, Ohio, organized the inaugural Max Rosenblum Invitational Professional Basketball Tournament, inviting four top professional teams including the New York Rens to play for a share of the substantial prize money offered – $1,500.
“Just name your terms, at Rosenblums,” was the store’s slogan.
The other participating teams were the New York Original Celtics, the Philadelphia SPHAs, and the Detroit Eagles. The Rens lost their first round game to the SPHAs, 55-48, in front of 4,500 spectators at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium. The following night they beat the Detroit Eagles in the consolation game, 49-45, with 6,500 fans on hand.
The tournament was a huge success for Rosenblum. A game scorecard from the event, showing Rens star William “Dolly” King as the tourney’s high scorer, is included among the artifacts on display in the exhibition.
In 1941, the financially struggling Washington (DC) Bruins all-black professional basketball team managed by pioneering African American sports entrepreneur Harold Jackson got new backing from local theater chain owner Abe Lichtman, who renamed the team the Washington Bears.
DC’s main basketball venue, Uline Arena, prohibited blacks from playing there, so Joe Turner, the white owner of Turner’s Arena allowed the Bears to use his erstwhile wrestling facility. Lichtman’s movie houses were among the few where blacks were allowed to patronize freely. Since his theater business kept him afloat, Lichtman had cash to spend during the lean years of World War II.
In 1943, the Bears were 41-0 and won the World’s Championship of Professional Basketball. “This is the first time since the turn of the century that a professional basketball team has enjoyed a season without a single defeat,” wrote tournament chairman Leo Fischer of the tournament-sponsoring Chicago Herald-American.
The exhibition features several promotional items and game programs from Washington Bears events as well as a rare photograph of the 1943 championship winning team.
In 1948, the previously whites-only National Basketball League invited the all-black New York Rens to join its circuit as a replacement for the failed Detroit Vagabond Kings franchise, under the new name Dayton Rens.
Though it was ultimately a raw deal for Rens owner Douglas, because his team had to assume Detroit’s pitiful 2-17 record, the move was hailed as a race relations milestone at the time.
Several rare Rens artifacts from the NBL are displayed in the exhibition, including a never-before-seen bar glass that is imprinted with the name of the Dayton Rens as well as each of the other NBL teams during that historic 1948-49 season.