How did one kid change basketball history? Here’s how.
James “Big Jim” Dorsey, a tall 15-year-old African American janitor from the North Side section of Pittsburgh, single-handedly influenced black basketball in the early 1900s.
By 1911, East Coast teams had dominated black basketball, winning every Colored World’s Basketball Championship since 1907. The Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn won the first two titles, the Washington 12 Streeters and Howard University had won the next two, with undefeated seasons. Howard seemed unbeatable.
Pittsburgh was the most powerful city in America, producing half the country’s steel, 60% of its rails, 75% of its steel tubing, most of its copper and lead, most of its nuts, bolts, and rivets, and home to the largest plate glass maker, the biggest chimney producer, and the leading harness leather supplier. Pittsburgh’s cargo in 1900 exceeded the total for New York City, Chicago, and Boston combined.
African American migrants from the South seeking a better life were almost certain to land jobs in the “Smoky City,” making Pittsburgh a fertile territory for sports, particularly baseball, as beautifully described in Sandlot Seasons.
Yet, Pittsburgh had no role on the growing national stage of black basketball because as late as 1904 there were no playgrounds and only a few whites-only gyms.
But in 1912 an unknown gang of athletically-minded young black men created a basketball team called the Monticello Athletic Association and challenged Howard University in “the first colored game ever played in Pittsburgh.”
Monticello won, 24-19.
Overnight, Pittsburgh became a must-stop city. “The colored basketball world will be forced to recognize Monticello as one of the fastest colored quints,” the Negro press warned.
Monticello’s success originated with James Dorsey. At 6 feet tall and athletic, Dorsey yearned to pursue sports. But with few options available for young blacks, Dorsey decided to innovate.
“I had the janitorial job at a gymnasium and bathhouse on the Northside,” Dorsey explained in a 1962 interview. “On Sundays I would sneak a group of our own boys into the gymnasium and indulge in all the possible pastimes, especially basketball.”
Dorsey holding up his janitor’s key and saying, “C’mon boys!” ranks as one of the greatest moments in basketball.
Dorsey “made history now” by creating his own reality. His burning desire couldn’t wait for someone to give permission, pave the way, provide instructions, or hold his hand. As Napoleon Hill wrote in Think And Grow Rich, “If the thing you wish to do is right, and you believe in it, go ahead and do it.”
What are you doing next to make history now?
As the janitor at the Phipps Physical Culture School, built in 1902 by millionaire steel industrialist Henry Phipps, Dorsey had the keys and full access to a brand new, fully equipped, state-of-the-art gymnasium, and bathhouse, complete with an extensive library stocked with the latest books on physical culture and “scientific” basketball.
Phipps was an early investor in Andrew Carnegie’s steel empire, and pocketed over $50 million (the equivalent of several billion dollars today) when J. P. Morgan purchased the company in 1901. Carnegie and Phipps were next-door neighbors and childhood friends, and Phipps built his school down the street from where they grew up, nearly at the site of present day Heinz Field, where the Pittsburgh Steelers play today.
In secrecy, Dorsey’s group studied basketball plays and footwork, exercised with brand new Indian clubs and other fitness apparatus, ran scrimmages, practiced free throws and team drills, and still had time to go for a dip in the pool.
“Over there, by the river, we taught ourselves all the ‘modern’ tricks,” Dorsey recalled.
Monticello practiced against local all-white teams like the United Friendship Sunday School, the Schenley Athletic Club, and the Washington Athletic Association, who were no match.
Amazingly, that underground Sunday basketball program at the Phipps gym went undiscovered for several years! Then one day, a church official happened to stop by. Dorsey was promptly fired, and that was the end of that.
In the years to follow, Pittsburgh teams — including the Loendi Big Five dynasty — would dominate black basketball, winning four more national titles with many of the same players that Jim Dorsey first organized and helped train at the Phipps gym.
More importantly, these Pittsburgh teams were set up from the beginning as semi-professional ventures, where players shared in the gate receipts. So they played a “working class” style of ball, doing whatever it took to win, rather than merely for club spirit and camaraderie.
This broke the ice for the teams back East that would later experiment with professionalism and eventually succeed.
After receiving a degree in physical education from the University of Pittsburgh and serving in World War I, Dorsey eventually became director of the Centre Avenue YMCA and then the Crawford Recreation Center, both in the predominantly black Hill District.
He finally had his own gym. So did we.