“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: Philadelphia Panthers, Quaker City Elks, New York Renaissance, Chicago Crusaders, Washington Bears, Harlem Globetrotters
Home: Philadelphia, PA
Zachariah “Zack” Clayton, one of the all-time greatest basketball players of the Black Fives Era as a star for the New York Renaissance and other teams, was born on May 4, 1910 in Philadelphia.
Clayton played guard for the “Rens” from 1936 to 1946, during which time he also appeared briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters as well as with the Washington Bears, while winning two World Professional Basketball Tournament championships.
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 — alongside Wilt Chamberlain, “Tarzan” Cooper, Roy Campanella, and a few others — Clayton was enshrined in the Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989.
“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, he became a career firefighter, and, more amazingly, began to officiate prizefighting matches.
He started from the bottom and worked his way to the top of his profession to become a highly regarded and internationally renowned boxing referee. In 1952, Clayton became 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. Clayton was the official ringside timekeeper for the 1963 heavyweight bout between Cassius Clay and Doug Jones, and, in 1972, he was appointed as chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.
Boxing aficionados may recall the legendary Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” bout in Kinshasa, Zaire in 1974, in which Ali employed the strategy he later called the “Rope-A-Dope.” In that fight, famously, the referee may have counted Foreman out too quickly after Ali knocked him down in the eighth round. That referee was Clayton, in what was perhaps the finest and the most watched moment of his career in boxing.