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Black Fives Basketball: Hidden Hard Court Heroes

Basketball's Black Fives Era is one of its greatest — and least remembered.

This history lesson begins with a gold, navy, and white Nike shoe from 2006. It's a cool, retro-style sneaker with a word written in stylized script on the heel: Rens. It was a long-overdue nod to a basketball era that had begun a century before.

The New York Renaissance — Rens for short — was the first all-African-American pro basketball team and won the first world professional basketball tournament, in 1939. The Rens played during a time now called the Black Fives Era, which began in 1904 with amateur teams and lasted until the 1950s, when the first black players entered the NBA.

As with baseball's Negro leagues teams, Black Fives played against each other and in exhibitions against all-white squads. There were also all-women's teams associated with the men's clubs. The Philadelphia Tribune Girls, led by Ora Washington, won 11 straight national titles.

All of this was closely covered by black newspapers — and mostly ignored by the white press. Once the NBA found its footing, in the early 1950s, the Black Fives were largely forgotten. But when Claude Johnson, then an NBA executive, first learned about the era in 1996, he became dedicated to educating people about this crucial period of history.

His efforts are paying off. The New-York Historical Society recently hosted an exhibit of artifacts from the era. The Black Fives Foundation (Johnson is founder and executive director) has also partnered with the Brooklyn Nets on an educational program launching this season. And 47 Brand is planning to launch a Black Fives apparel line. Says Johnson, "We've always tried to use this part of history as a way of finding common ground, and I think that's important right now."

Johnson gave us a lot of great information about the Black Fives era that we couldn't squeeze into the story published in our November issue. So here's a brief Q&A (edited and condensed from two separate conversations) with him about the teams, players, and time period that he's bringing back to life:

How did you become interested in this subject? 

I was working at the NBA, in their consumer products department as the Director of International Licensing. I was really interested in history and I had read this book that had come out by Arthur Ashe , the tennis star, The Hard Road to Glory which is about the journey of the African American athlete. And in that book, he mentioned all these team names, and the name that really struck a chord with me was the Smart Set Athletic Club of brooklyn. I was living in Brooklyn at the time, and I immediately saw that name on a t-shirt and me walking around Brooklyn with this t-shirt on that said "Smart Set Athletic Club 1904." You couldn't even make up a name that cool if you tried. I thought, "I’m smart, I’m athletic, I live in Brooklyn…" And that led to more research and study. And I realized here was a whole parallel universe of these weekly write-ups on all the basketball games that took place around America starting around 1904, 1905, 1906, and beyond. So I started documenting all that, chronologically. And slowly that began me writing this chronology. But through that, I began to realize that if these teams are that cool sounding to me, I thought that I might as well trademark or apply for trademarks for these names. My mission was: let me bring these names and these stories back to life through whatever way I can. Eventually I thought merchandise was a good way to do that.

Has there been anything in your research that has surprised you? 

Oh yeah. There are these little mysteries, and one of them is how did these teams get to know one another? I mean step back. Maybe a lot of people didn’t have telephones, there was no Internet. They did have street directories. But how is it that in New York City, where really the basketball interest among African-Americans started in terms of independent teams playing, how did the Smart Set get to know the guys from the St. Christopher Club? And how did the guys from St. Christopher Club get to know these other teams? It wasn’t like you had someone that said we’re having a basketball get together. What I found is that in those days, the street directories would not only show where they lived, but also where they worked. So it turns out that many of these early pioneers worked at a place called Standard Oil, which was John Rockefeller’s company – it was down on lower Broadway – but they worked there as messengers. So some of the key guys from the Alpha or the St. Christopher Club – were all affiliated somehow with the Standard Oil Company. And many of the early pioneers were West Indian. So that was also another dimension of how they all got together.

You mentioned that there were women's teams during the period, too. How many women's teams were there, and how popular were they compared to the men's leagues?

There were several women's teams, and back around the 1910s it was customary for these club teams, like the Smart Set Athletic Club and the Alpha Physical Culture Club, to have sister organizations or sister teams. And they became more and more evolved, especially going into the late 1920s. And once the Depression hit, the basketball promoters that had been successful with barnstorming black men's teams realized, "Wait a minute, let's try traveling around with all-black female teams."

So the first of those was this team out of Chicago called the Club Store Coeds, which, their nickname became the Chocolate Coeds. They were the first team, that I could find, that left town and went all the way out to the Pacific Northwest and out to Calgary and places like that. And they were just seen as a novelty. But when they got there they actually were talented players. The success of that team made others realize, "Well, we can do the same thing." And the one that emerged as probably the best, maybe the best all-female team, black or white, was the Tribune Girls, which was a team sponsored by Philadelphia Tribune, an African-American newspaper. This team won the Back National Female Championship 11 years in a row, from the late '30s into 1940s. They had a player on their team, Ora May Washington, who was from Philadelphia, who I think deserves to be enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

How has merchandising allowed you get this story out to more people?

What I found, when you go to a school, whether underprivileged inner city or a privileged elite boarding school, when I pull out a Nike Dunk that has a Rens logo on it, it doesn't matter who's in the room. They're all going, "Oh! Where did you get that? Cool!" In their minds, they're thinking, "this team the Rens must be legit because Nike put it on their shoe." Then, because I have it, they're like, "OK we've got to listen to this guy." So that's the thing. Merchandise is this whole separate language. It's not the merchandise. It's what it allows and what it creates. 

When I hold up that shoe, it doesn’t really matter what you’re talking about next, now they’re listening. You put it in the context of basketball, which they appreciate. Then you say, look at these old shoes, basketball shoes from 1910, then we talk about the ball, which had laces. Then we talk about the basket, which was closed at the bottom, and then I ask the kids, “What does that mean?” Well, maybe there was no dunk, maybe there was no fast break – because after every basket the ref had to tip it over. They had to jump at midcourt after every basket. They also had a rule, which was if you had dribbled, you couldn’t shoot. So then I ask, “What does that mean?” Then they get it.

What do you think the players from the Black Fives era would think of the NBA and professional basketball and the way it has developed today? 

I think that the most striking thing is it almost seems, for a while, professional leagues and the NCAA lost track of the original role of basketball. Basketball was used as a vehicle to bring people together, to teach, to create self-esteem, to reach out and, yes, to create business models. So they would probably be really thrilled about the way it has developed. But at the same time it would be a little bit of a disappointment with overlooking certain things. I see that coming back now though, especially with AAU, the fact that international players are getting involved. It’s a way to connect with people, even if you don’t speak their language. 

For more information about the Black Fives, visit the Black Fives Foundation website.

Photos courtesy Black Fives Foundation

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