Tonight, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame will announce which of its finalists for enshrinement were elected into the “Class of 2009.”

Basketball Hall of Fame logo

There are always a variety of opinions regarding the Hall’s annual list, and debate often rages.  This year no one is arguing about three of the finalists — Michael Jordan, David Robinson, and John Stockton.

The fact that some of the Hall’s finalists are black does not stir up any controversy whatsoever.

But that wasn’t always the case.

First black inductee

Let’s rewind to 1972.  That’s the first time the Hall of Fame elected an African American as an individual inductee.

It was  Robert “Bob” Douglas, the founder of the New York Renaissance professional basketball team.

There were a total of 76 individuals elected — none of them black — prior to Douglas.

Not even a handful of African Americans who made their mark during the period prior to the establishment of the National Basketball Association have been elected since. They are Charles “Tarzan” Cooper (1977), John McLendon (1979), and William “Pop” Gates (1989).

That’s it.

Howie Evans, Amsterdam News

Howie Evans, New York Amsterdam News.

Each of these men seemed to require prolonged, extensive, and ongoing activism … prodding … protestation … accusations … and lobbying … by highly visible black journalists like Howie Evans, the prolific and incisive long time sportswriter for the New York Amsterdam News.

No wonder Bill Russell, when he was elected in 1975, refused to accept the honor.  He thought it was a farce.

Has pre-N.B.A. recognition ended?

Times have changed, at least insofar as any qualms by the Hall about enshrining African Americans.  Yet, other farcical aspects remain.  And the recognition of blacks from the pre-N.B.A. epoch seems to have ended.  It’s been a long time since 1989 (Gates).

When lobbying for black inductees first began in the 1960s, there was no distinction between eligible black candidates on the whole, and specific pre-N.B.A. black candidates — they were one and the same.

But now it’s as if the Hall mistakenly thinks that its progress regarding the election of African Americans in general somehow goes toward satisfying the need to consider specific deserving black pioneers from the earlier time.

Journalistic flashback

As part of this Hall of Fame flashback, let’s take a look at the following article by Evans, that was originally published in the Amsterdam News on February 12, 1972:

Bob Douglas voted into basketball hall of fame

by Howie Evans

In April of this year, Bob Douglas, retired manager of the Renaissance Ballroom, will be inducted into basketball’s Hall of Fame at Springfield, Massachusetts.

Douglas has been a national sporting figure for more than 50 years, and he was one of the fore-runners of professional basketball in this country.  In 1922, Douglas, disgusted with the manner in which amateur basketball was progressing, began an experiment that became the foundation for today’s version of professional basketball.

He assembled a team of Black players, all with different degrees of skill in the game, and toured the country, playing in dance halls, barns, and anywhere a basketball court could be constructed.  He named the team “The Renaissance Big Five.”  However, to people all over the country, in short time, they simply became known as “The Rens.

First pro champs

The Rens won basketball’s first world professional championship on March 28, 1939 in Chicago.  They once won 88 straight games in a row, a record that still stands in professional basketball today.

Names like Hilton Slocum, Hy Monte, Zack Anderson, Frank Forbes, Harold Meyers, and Leon Monde made up the original Rens.  The team of William “Wee Willie” Smith, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Bill Yancy, Johnny “Casey” Holt, and Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch which was togeother during 1932-1936 was called the greatest by Douglas.

However, Douglas’ most popular team, and the one remembered by all, was the group that consisted of Smith, Cooper, John “Crab” Isaacs, William “Pop” Gates, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Eyre Saitch, Zach Clayton, and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins.  The team won the title in 1939.  Douglas has often referred to “Pop” Gates as being the best of all the players he ever coached.

Douglas recently retired, and was honored by the Boys of Yesterday, a group of Harlem oldtimers who have made working with the youths of Harlem their life-long project.

Douglas was 87 years old when he was enshrined.

The New York Times also announced the milestone. “Six men, including the first black, have been elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on the campus of Springfield College in Massachusetts,” it reported.

(Evans photo courtesy of MSG Networks.)