A solitary figure meets visitors just inside The Black Fives, a newly installed exhibition at New-York Historical Society. A “well-dressed basketball player” sporting flannel shorts, belted shorts, high stockings, and kneepads, he’s equipped for a game played out of the limelight, contested on floors with inconsistent floorboards and the occasional exposed nail. He embodies an era (the 1920s) in which basketball was still new and, like the rest of this country, still decidedly segregated. Surrounding the cutout, ephemeral documents and photographs illuminate a forgotten recent history.
Consider your typical chatter about basketball’s timeline. “Naismith, man. 1891.” We know the folklore. We know all about peach baskets. We know about that murky period when there was no three-point line and when dunks were outlawed. We can rattle off the names of the 50 greatest players in NBA history. But, what do we know about sport’s adolescence, young adulthood, and middle age? What do we know about the time when teams were called fives and what do we know of those fives made up of “colored” players?
Johnson started collecting through simple eBay searches, but now his series of brilliant objects placed in context depict an untold story of the growth of black basketball.
The Black Fives, which opened on March 14 and runs through June 20, 2014, draws from the personal collection of Claude Johnson. A former employee of Nike and the NBA, Johnson (now an author and historian) founded The Black Fives Foundation in an effort to research, preserve, exhibit and promote the pre-1950 history of African American basketball teams.
“All I knew was that someone has to preserve this stuff,” Johnson said of his initial impulse for archiving the Black Fives material. “I give the museum tons of credit, because they had the vision. This is the first exhibition of its kind. Now I’m looking at my collection and thinking, maybe there really is something to it.”
Johnson started collecting through simple eBay searches, but now his series of brilliant objects placed in context depict an untold story of the growth of black basketball. In the space, programs and uniforms are shown alongside flyers and trophy medals unfolding a chronological portrait that builds throughout the exhibition. From images of the New York Girls basketball team of 1910 and the Alpha Physical Culture Club squad of 1912, all the way to the official souvenir program of the “5th Annual Championship Basketball Tournament” played at Chicago Stadium in March of 1943, it is the tale of progress—in both sport and society. And, in its comprehensive nature, the exhibition is a triumph of cultural history.
“For example, because of the popularity of rag time music [in the 1910s], enterprising black basketball promoters started realizing they could create a meaningful basketball event, which was growing in interest, and then also schedule to have an orchestra there because that is the true draw,” said Johnson. “That would then be the premise for having a dance.”
The conflation of dance and hoops was a brilliant conceit. For one, the employment of ballrooms as gyms circumnavigated the fact that most arenas were relegated to whites-only participation. Secondly, a rhythm was established helping basketball transcend athletics and entwine itself in the cultural fabric of urban American life.
A rhythm was established helping basketball transcend athletics and entwine itself in the cultural fabric of urban American life.
The Rens claimed the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball (a tournament conceived by sports editor Edward W. Cochrane) in 1939, beating the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars. Rens owner Bob Douglas reveled in the moment, happily reporting to the Amsterdam News that “all the living expenses of the members of the team are paid while on the road, even down to chewing gum.
A 1946 contract between the Rens and player Jim Usry is one of the most revealing objects in the exhibition. Usry signed with the team for $500 a month, plus disability insurance, and played with the club during the World Championships of 1947 and, the events final year, 1948—where they fell to the George Mikan-lead Minneapolis Lakers of the National Basketball Association.
The continued success of the Rens, as well as other black players, culminated in landmark change in the late 1940s: integration. Incorporated into the National Basketball League in 1948, the Rens moved to Dayton where their ultimate success that season was minimal (a last place finish). But their introduction to the NBL served as a symbolic end to the segregation of basketball, a fact made tangible in the exhibition by a bar glass imprinted with all the league’s teams. It’s a relic, meant as a novelty, which has survived as a testament to history.
On October 31, 1950, roughly three after Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier, Earl Lloyd became the first African American player in the NBA. A photo of Lloyd, with his West Virginia State University team, is one of the final objects in The Black Fives. It’s a poignant portrait, featuring the athletes posing with California Governor Earl Warren, honoring their play against white schools at the San Francisco Cow Palace.
The cultural milieu of The Black Fives—dress, music, community organization—celebrates the rich potential of sport to connect people, expand opportunity, and, ultimately, enact change.
Johnson’s goal is to now create derivations of the show that will travel and serve to inspire a new generation to consider the way basketball has folded into the fabric of America. “We can tailor the exhibition now to different cities—L.A. or Chicago—and give it enough of a draw for that locale.”
Now when you think of a well-dressed player, know that that archetype doesn’t begin with Russell Westbrook’s bright shirts. That guy with kneepads in the photo represents the roots of the game we love. His story augured the blossoming of a global phenomenon. In its partnership with the New-York Historical Society, the Black Fives Foundation allows us all an opportunity to reflect not only on how basketball has changed over time, but also how the game played a role in the development of our collective culture.
The New-York Historical Society is located at 170 Central Park West, New York, New York. Click through the gallery above for highlights of The Black Fives.