This week, 85 years ago (in 1922), the white-owned all-black basketball team known as the Commonwealth Big Five made their debut in Harlem. The “Commons” were the first fully professional African American basketball team, but they’ve never gotten credit for that important distinction.
Fully pro meant guaranteed season-long contracts for each player, an innovation at the time.
Typically, the New York Rens, under Hall of Fame owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, gets all the props as the first black pro basketball team but that’s only half true. The Rens were only the first black-owned fully professional all-black team.
I ain’t gonna lie, the reason the Commons don’t get credit is because they were white owned. But more on that in a minute.
Who were the owners? Two Bronx-born sports promoters, Roderick “Jess” McMahon and his brother Eddie McMahon. They were into boxing, wrestling, and Negro Leagues Baseball, having previously owned the Philadelphia Giants and the New York Lincoln Giants before opening their Commonwealth Sporting Club and Casino on 135th Street between Madison and Fifth Avenue in Harlem.
Friday of this week also marks the day, 53 years ago, that Jess McMahon had a massive stroke while watching a wrestling match in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. He died there five days later. At McMahon’s bedside was his son Vince, a sports promoter in Washington, D.C. Vince’s own son, then 9-year-old Vince, Jr., wasn’t there, and wouldn’t meet his father until three years later.
The same Vince, Jr. would eventually become chairman of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). Today, Vince McMahon, Jr. is known simply as Mr. McMahon.
Back to the basketball.
The McMahons were well loved in Harlem. Why? Well, mainly because they allowed mixed-race prizefighting bouts, setting up black contenders to get title shots, while more powerful white promoters like Madison Square Garden principal operator Tex Rickard, an avowed racist, refused.
Blacks despised Rickard for blocking the number one heavyweight contender, African American fighter Harry “Brown Panther” Wills, from getting a shot at his boy, Jack Dempsey, despite threats from the New York State boxing commission. The McMahons, on the other hand, sincerely respected and honored the surrounding community, and the feeling was mutual. And the Commonwealth Club’s profits proved it.
This allowed the Commonwealth Big Five to raid all the best African American basketball talent. The McMahons said, “If they can do it, we can do it.”
Their all-star lineup included Harold “Legs” Jenkins, Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Paul Robeson (yes, that one), and Georgie Fiall, all formerly of the St. Christopher Club; Hilton Slocum, George Capers, and Frank “Strangler” Forbes, all formerly of the Spartan Braves; Creed “Hops” Hubbard, formerly of the Wabash Outlaws, Chicago Forty Club, and Chicago Defender Five; and Leon Monde, formerly of the Borough Athletic Club.
When they took the court on November 12, 1922, the Commons were an instant smash hit and the “must-see” attraction of Harlem.
Suddenly, to critical African American sports officials, professionalism in basketball didn’t seem so bad after all. They said, “If they can do it, we can do it.”
Mr. McMahon, didya know your own kin helped start black pro basketball?
The McMahons scheduled over 100 games that season, which included a 24-game winning streak. One game, against the New York Original Celtics featuring Hall of Fame players Nat Holman and “Dutch” Dehnert, was the first ever between a recognized mainstream (i.e., white) world’s champion and an all-black team. (It was a 41-29 loss, but the Celtics had insisted on bringing their own referees to Harlem to officiate the game. Hmm.)
Three thousand spectators at $1.10 each with “a good sprinkling of whites” was big money at the time, when monthly rent for an apartment was about $25.
Despite their talent that season, the Commonwealth Big Five lost to Cumberland Posey and his Loendi Big Five as well as other key games, and had to wait until the following year claimed the title of Colored Basketball World’s Champions for 1923-24.
The following year the Commonwealth Big Five folded when Bob Douglas finally came out and said, “If they can do it, I can do it!” He then methodically raided the Commons to form the nucleus of his own New York Renaissance team.
Soon afterwards, Jess joined up with Rickard to promote fights at the Garden. Eddie continued match-making around town and died in 1935.
Soon after that, the Rens of Harlem won the first World Pro Basketball Tournament in Chicago, beating America’s ten best white teams.
Soon after that, the N.B.A. said, “If they can do it, we can do it.”
Today, the New York City Housing Authority operates the Lincoln Houses at the former site of the once-famous Commonwealth Sporting Club and Casino. There’s no plaque, but there oughta be.
Now, why are the McMahons ignored in basketball history? It’s because white sportswriters never bothered to cover black basketball back then, even as black sportswriters gave pages of props to the McMahons and the Commons. Meanwhile, everyone forgot about the history of the Black Fives Era as soon as the N.B.A. took off in the 1950s.
Wouldn’t it be great if the McMahon family, all trash talking aside, embraced its own important contribution to the history of basketball?
Commonwealth Big Five photograph by James Van der Zee courtesy of Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee.