“He has an uncanny eye for long shots and is the center of the defense.”
—The Sheboygan Press, 1934
“I think the Harlem Globetrotters, Renaissance, and the Bears paved the way for blacks by defeating the best white teams for the world championships. That was a major accomplishment for blacks in the sport of basketball.”
—Zack Clayton, 1989
Teams: Wissahickon Speed Boys, Philadelphia Tribune Five, Philadelphia Panthers, Philadelphia Colored Giants, Quaker City Elks, Chicago Crusaders, New York Renaissance, Harlem Globetrotters, Washington Bears.
Home: Philadelphia, PA
Zachary “Zack” Clayton was one of the all-time greatest basketball players of the Black Fives Era. He as born April 17, 1913 in Virginia and moved to Philadelphia as a toddler with his family. Clayton was a scholar-athlete at Simon Gratz High School, where lettered as a star in football, basketball, baseball, and track.
After high school, Clayton played guard and small forward for several Philadelphia-based basketball teams before leaving Philadelphia to join the Chicago Crusaders, a nationally recognized squad. He signed with the “Rens” in 1935 and played with them through 1946. During this time Clayton also appeared with the Washington Bears and the Harlem Globetrotters.
“He has an uncanny eye for long shots and is the center of the defense,” the Sheboygan Press explained.
In 1939, Clayton led the Rens to the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball title and was named to the All Tournament team. In 1943, he helped the Bears win that same title while being named to the All Tournament Second Team. “We were able to beat the white teams because of our quickness,” Clayton remembered years later.
Clayton also played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues as a brilliant first baseman with the Philadelphia Stars, Bacharach Giants, New York Black Yankees, and Philadelphia Giants.
Considered one of the ten most talented early African American athletes ever developed in Philadelphia, Clayton was enshrined in the Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989 alongside Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame members Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, Eddie Gottlieb, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Harry Litwack, and Tom Gola.
“I think the Harlem Globetrotters, Renaissance, and the Bears paved the way for blacks by defeating the best white teams for the world championships,” he said at the time. “That was a major accomplishment for blacks in the sport of basketball.”
After retiring from pro basketball, Clayton became a career firefighter, rising to the rank of Fire Lieutenant with Engine Company 45 in the Philadelphia Fire Department.
Simultaneously, Clayton began to officiate boxing matches, and eventually became highly regarded and internationally renowned. In 1952, he was the first African American to referee a heavyweight fight, in the contest between Ezzard Charles and “Jersey” Joe Walcott.
During his officiating career, Clayton refereed dozens of headline fights. When he wasn’t pacing the canvas he was outside the ropes as a judge or a timekeeper.
In 1972, he was appointed as chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.
Relentlessly dedicated to his community, Clayton assisted and mentored inner city Philadelphia youth with a focus on involvement in recreation and sports. In 1972, hw was appointed to head the city’s Gang Control Unit by Mayor Frank L. Rizzo. According to police, there were more than 100 gangs and 5,000 gang members in Philadelphia at the time. “Most are in black ghetto areas,” it was reported.
In what was the finest and the most watched moment of his career in boxing, Clayton was the referee in the legendary Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974. This was the fight in which Ali employed a winning strategy that he later called the “Rope-A-Dope.”
In 1993, Clayton was inducted into the Pennsylvania Sports Hall of Fame.
He died in 1997 at age 84.