In 1910, the New York All Stars became the first African American basketball team to play the sport for financial gain. They split the gates receipts among players and their manager.
One might be thinking, so what?But consider that in its early years, playing basketball for pay was widely considered a taboo. This was true regardless of race. The inventors of the game – high-collared Victorian-era thinkers – condemned even the well-established white professional basketball leagues.
Luther Gulick, who was the boss of basketball inventor James Naismith, warned that professionalism “has ruined every branch of athletics to which it has come.” When money becomes involved in sport, he cautioned, “it degenerates with most tremendous speed.”
Black basketball pioneer Edwin Henderson echoed that view in this 1910 opinion:
In all seriousness, professionalism in basketball was considered a sin.
Honest professional sport does exist, but, as a rule, when men put all their wits and strength into a contest to earn a livelihood, the ethics of the game usually is lowered; fair play generally is the lookout of the officials and not of the players; mean and unfair tactics are resorted to; spectators are hoodwinked; laying down, double-crossing and faking take the place of clean playing, and fairness of player to player and players to public become a secondary consideration.
One key reason is that basketball was born strictly in a religious context, within the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.). The game was invented literally as a means of helping young men avoid moral decay, by keeping them so busy during the cold winter months that their risk of distraction from alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, sex, and other tempting vices would be reduced.
In complete alignment with the Y’s mission, basketball’s original purpose was to balance mind, body, and spirit.
So in 1910, when an African American man named Major Aloysius Hart formed the New York All Stars with entrepreneurial intentions, he was quickly attacked. Not by basketball authorities or by the game’s forefathers. You know who were his harshest critic? The Negro press! Other local amateur basketball clubs were outraged, and their voices were heard through the columns of black sportswriters who sided with the ideals of pure amateurism.
Major Hart was a former U.S. Army rifleman who’d served in the Spanish-American War in the Philippines. As a sharpshooter, he had a long view on things, including his vision for the way blacks could use basketball.
“That this game has taken a firm hold of our people,” wrote Hart, “has been demonstrated beyond a doubt.”The All Stars, who had attracted all of the best African American players in the New York City area away from the best amateur clubs, were ready to dominate black basketball not only locally but also in other regions.
Their lineup included former St. Christopher center Charles Bradford, who also played pro baseball for the Pittsburgh Colored Giants, as well as former Smart Set Athletic Club stars Ferdinand Accooe and Charles Scottron.
However, encouraged by the outspoken voices of certain African American newspapermen, New York City’s amateur teams boycotted the All Stars – in other words, they wouldn’t schedule any games with the All Stars.
This initially forced Hart to take his club on the road. Not to be denied, the entrepreneur responded by inviting popular “big ticket” out-of-town teams to Manhattan. “Games are being negotiated with teams from Washington, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other places,” Hart promoted, “and the lovers of the game will be treated to some fine contests during the coming season.”
For example, the game scheduled with Howard University’s varsity squad was sure to draw many local fans who were originally from D.C. or who were graduates of the college. Another team on Hart’s schedule, the U.S. Tenth Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Five from Fort Ethan Allen in Vermont, were the Army’s “colored” basketball champions and would sell tickets by arousing curiosity, patriotism, and pride.
Hart scheduled home games for the New York All Stars at the Manhattan Casino in Harlem – on Eighth Avenue at West 155th Street – an exciting and convenient venue that was becoming America’s mecca of black hoops.
For a while, black sportswriters warmed up to his efforts. But his long term vision of possibilities for African Americans in the game was bigger than what most blacks in New York City’s amateur sports circles would dare to entertain. The play-for-pay concept idea never caught on with the public, and soon the All Stars lost momentum, finally disbanding after the 1912-13 season.
Major Aloysius Hart was way ahead of his time. Or was he?
Though his efforts failed, the seeds were planted. Hart’s flirt with professionalism inspired a new wave of entrepreneurial black basketball pioneers like Cumberland Posey, Will Anthony Madden, Ed and Jess McMahon, and Robert “Bob” Douglas.
Their efforts in turn, like seeds, took time to sprout. Public sentiment began shifting as well.
More than a decade later, the continually building demand for better basketball would lead to the formation of the first fully professional all-black teams – the Commonwealth Big Five in 1920 and the New York Renaissance Five (a.k.a. “Rens”) in 1923.
The Rens eventually would be enshrined into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, in 1963. Douglas would be inducted in 1972.
Today, the lucrative contracts in professional basketball make it seem as though money has always been a part of the game. But that wasn’t the case for African Americans until pioneering black hoops promoter and entrepreneur Major Aloysius Hart began paving the way.
For more on the New York All Stars, please see this team profile.