From the Preface to book, “Black Fives: The Alpha Physical Culture Club’s Pioneering African American Basketball Team, 1904-1923,” by Claude Johnson, founder and executive director of The Black Fives Foundation.
I came up with the idea for writing this book while I was working in a licensing job at the National Basketball Association. It was in 1996, the year the league celebrated its 50th anniversary. To help commemorate the milestone, they produced an 800-page book, The Official NBA Encyclopedia. It contained only three pages about African American basketball teams that had played prior to the league’s formation in 1950. Those three pages were devoted to just two teams – the New York Renaissance Big Five a.k.a. “Harlem Rens” and the Harlem Globetrotters.
Wait, I remember asking myself, only two black teams? I wasn’t sure whether this was the league’s oversight or history’s oversight, or both. I was left curious, because I had seen quite a few all-black pre-N.B.A. basketball teams mentioned, however briefly, in other books such as Arthur Ashe’s classic, A Hard Road To Glory: A History of the African American Athlete.
I wanted to find out more, but no one seemed to know anything about these earlier teams or their collective history – not the league’s resident historian, not the reference librarians at the New York Public Library or at the Library of Congress, not even the curators at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It seemed that the history of the pioneers of the Black Fives Era of basketball had been lost, forgotten, buried, ignored, or all of the above.
I decided to do something about it, so I began the journey that resulted in the writing of this book.