Henry “Hank” DeZonie, who was a star basketball player with the Harlem Yankees, New York Renaissance, Dayton Rens of the National Basketball League, and Tri-Cities Blackhawks of the National Basketball Association, died January 2, 2009, at Lenox Hill Hospital in Harlem.

He would have been 87 years old yesterday.

According to his wife and friends, DeZonie, a quiet man who had been ailing for years with emphysema and asthma, said he “wanted to go.”

He left behind his wife Ethel DeZonie, and his sons Hank, Jr. of Harlem and Richard of the Bronx.

Former New York Rens and NBA player Hank DeZonie

Hank DeZonie, 1922-2009.

Outside of Harlem, his long time residence, DeZonie is best known as one of the first four African American players in the N.B.A., along with Chuck Cooper, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, and Earl Lloyd.

DeZonie was born in Harlem in 1922, where he attended elementary school. When his family moved to a predominantly white neighborhood in the Bronx, causing a disruption in the boy’s social acceptance and academic focus, he found an outlet in basketball. DeZonie gave credit to Jewish players — with whom he hung out on playgrounds there — for teaching him the fine points of the game, according to his widow.

By the time his family moved back to Harlem, DeZonie stood 6′-4″ and had turned into a tremendous talent.  He was not only clever under the basket but also had great leaping ability. “I got up pretty good,” the modest star admitted to Peter Vescey in 2004 for a New York Post interview. “I’d go get it, keep it, and do what I wanted with it.” He honed his skills starring in youth basketball leagues at the 135th Street Y.M.C.A., adding the label of “sharpshooter” to his repertoire.

DeZonie later attended Clark University in Atlanta, Georgia, where he developed further. Coming back to New York City, DeZonie played for the semi-pro Harlem Yankees basketball team, which acted as a “farm club” for the fully professional New York Rens.

He joined the Rens for the 1943-44 season, under owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “Keep an eye on big Hank DeZonie, Bob’s new find,” the Amsterdam News reported. His debut in Harlem was in a victory over the New York Original Celtics alongside Rens stars “Pop” Gates, Willie Smith, “Puggy” Bell, and Zach Clayton.

DeZonie played for Douglas through the mid-1940s, traveling far and wide on board the team’s private REO Speedwagon bus.  He was on the Rens ’46-’47 squad that flew to Los Angeles in a chartered 4-engine Douglas aircraft to play Jackie Robinson’s team, the Los Angeles Red Devils — the first airplane trip for the Rens.  DeZonie also played with the Rens in World Professional Basketball Tournaments during those years.

And, he was with the very last Rens team — the one that took over the failed Detroit Vagabond Kings franchise in the old N.B.L. in 1948. DeZonie’s “bio” in the 1948-49 Official N.B.L. Yearbook included these comments:

He is a good floorman, and great things are expected of him in the future. He has been called a second Willie Smith at the center position. He is not as tall as most of the N.B.L centers, but his fancy shooting amazes the fans. He travels up and down the court with a slow skip that serves as sort of a change of pace. When he shoots, he stretches every bit of his 6’6″ toward the basket.

At the end of that season, some teams of the N.B.L. folded while the rest merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the N.B.A. — all except the Rens, an all-black team that were refused admittance on account of their race.

After going back to the Harlem Yankees for a season — a new version of the team, now with the American Basketball League — DeZonie landed in the N.B.A. anyway. He joined the Tri-Cities Blackhawks for the 1950-51 season, thus racially integrating the league along with Cooper, Clifton, and Lloyd.

But his and Harlem’s triumph soon turned to disappointment. Disgusted with the racist climate he faced there, DeZonie quit the N.B.A. after just five games. “I lived better than that,” he told Vescey in 2004. “Once the days in the bus were over, it was more fun playing in the schoolyard.”

DeZonie, who was an avid drummer and a man about town, soon opened a bar — the Renny Lounge — on the ground floor of the Renaissance Ballroom in Harlem. It was a well known and popular spot for years, into the 1980s.

He also played for the New York Old Timers in the national Old Timers Basketball League in the mid-1960s, alongside Zach Clayton, Charlie Isles, John Isaacs, “Pop” Gates, Sonny Woods, Donald Hinds, and Puggy Bell. The league had teams in Brooklyn, Atlantic City, Newark, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. With DeZonie, the New Yorkers won the championship in 1967 and 1968, going undefeated both years.

Hank DeZonie and John Isaacs

Hank DeZonie and John Isaacs, sitting for a New York Post interview with Peter Vescey in 2004.

Although he was not one to mince words, the pioneering basketball star was also humble and self-deprecating. Listening to Ethel DeZonie describe her late husband, it seems he characterized many experiences as being “the worst time of his life,” including his traumatic upheaval to the Bronx as a child, his time in the N.B.A., his days running the Renny Lounge, and surely some others.

I have a feeling, though, that this was his way of staying grounded. “I was the talker, and he was the quiet one” Mrs. DeZonie says, cheerfully. “I used to talk about him whenever and wherever I could, and he loved it!”

The visitation ceremony and funeral service for DeZonie took place at the Marion Daniels Funeral Home in Harlem, presided over by Rev. Calvin Sampson.

Consistent with his low-key persona and disdain for the limelight, DeZonie insisted he did not want a big “to-do” over his death, according to Mrs. DeZonie.  This may help explain why this news escaped notice by nearly all but his immediate family and closest friends.

One such intimate pal was DeZonie’s former teammate John Isaacs, whom DeZonie had once idolized. and who arrived at the funeral service alone.  “My friend is gone,” Isaacs said, standing before the gathering, unable to fight back tears. “My friend is gone.”

The interment was at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

Three weeks later Isaacs was gone too. More tears. More stories to tell.

Who will tell the stories to honor Hank DeZonie, a pioneer of the Black Fives Era, who played a historic role in the history of basketball as we know it today?

“Anything talking about my husband was like the sun comin’ up in the morning, and the moon shinin’ at night,” said Mrs. DeZonie as she remembered him to me.  “He was the king, and I was his queen.”