Here are some April birthdays related to the Black Fives Era of basketball.
San Francisco Bay Area playground basketball legend Don Barksdale, the first African American member of the United States Olympic basketball team (London, 1948), was born on March 31, 1921, in Oakland, California. As I’ve mentioned before, Barksdale was also the first African American Consensus All American (at U.C.L.A.) and the first African American in the N.B.A. to make the league’s All Star team. Barksdale never played high school basketball. He was truly one of the most amazing people ever, and he did way more than leave an impression on just sports. A recent exceptionally well produced documentary film, Bounce: The Don Barksdale Story (which can be viewed online without charge) details the life, achievements, and contributions of this most amazing man, as does this wonderful Barksdale tribute by author and activist Dave Zirin.
One of the first African American two-sport professional stars, Bill Yancey was born on April 4, 1904 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Yancey first became prominent playing basketball for the Philadelphia Panthers and Philadelphia Giants as a barnstorming teammate of Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Jackie Bethards, and Zack Clayton. All four players eventually joined the New York Rens. He also played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues.
Born on April 5, 1915 in Hiawatha, Kansas, John McLendon learned basketball from the game’s inventor, Dr. James Naismith. Among many accolades, he was the first N.C.A.A. coach to win 3 consecutive national titles (in the N.A.I.A. with Tennessee State in ‘57, ‘58, and ‘59). McLendon is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, as a contributor. A comprehensive autobiography of his life and accomplishments, Breaking Through, was published in 2008.
A man of towering accomplishments in numerous fields, Paul Robeson was born on April 9, 1898. Twice a football All American at Rutgers University during the 1910s, Robeson also helped the St. Christopher Club of Harlem win the black basketball national championship title in 1919 while attending law school at Columbia University. He also played professionally for the Harlem-based Commonwealth Big Five basketball team in the early 1920s. Robeson, who practiced law briefly, also played two seasons of pro football including one year in the early National Football League before becoming a world renowned Broadway and film actor, recording artist, concert performer, radio star, human and labor rights activist, cultural promoter, author, and goodwill ambassador. In 2004 the United States Post Office introduced a Paul Robeson commemorative stamp.
One of the greatest centers of all time, Joe Lapchick, was born on April 12, 1900 in Yonkers, New York. Lapchick was a star with the New York Original Celtics and other pro hoops teams during the 1920s and 1930s. For nearly two decades, his Celtics engaged in a legendary ongoing rivalry with the New York Rens. After retiring from play, Lapchick began a successful coaching career that included four National Invitational Tournament championships with St. John’s University. He was the head coach of the New York Knicks when the team signed Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton as one of the first black players in the N.B.A., and was highly supportive of the move as well as the player.
Born on April 17, 1890 in Brooklyn, New York, Charles Scottron was an original member of the Smart Set Athletic Club basketball team. The Smart Set was the first independent African American basketball team in history, formed in Brooklyn in 1907. Scottron helped the Smart Set win the black national championship in 1907 and 1908, before joining the New York All Stars, the first all-black first pay-for-play team.
(Photographs courtesy of AthletesUnitedForPeace.org, The University of Arkansas Press, the Bettman Archive, and the Horne Family Archives.)