A very different kind of game: Basketball’s beginnings

As basketball fans around the world prepare to watch the NBA finals to see if the title dreams of LeBron James and the Miami Heat’s “Big Three” can withstand the fast moving offense of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, Greenwich resident Claude Johnson is focused on a very different era of basketball.

The Alpha Physical Culture Club of Harlem was formed in 1904 and was America’s first African American athletic club. In a segregated America, even in New York City, there weren’t other proper facilities for African Americans to get needed exercise and the club quickly took off, even forming its own amateur basketball team. Now Mr. Johnson is bringing to light the story of the club’s famous Alpha Big Five and its struggles to hold tightly to strict amateur ideals at a time when people were first beginning to see the possibilities of playing basketball professionally.

Mr. Johnson, founder and president of Black Fives Inc., a vintage sports licensing company dedicated to researching, preserving, promoting, and teaching about the history of African American basketball teams, has turned this story into a new book. Black Fives: The Alpha Physical Culture Club’s Pioneering African American Basketball Team 1904-1923 is a look back into an era of basketball very different from today’s all-powerful NBA with its global reach and marketing and multi-million dollar contracts.


Mr. Johnson said he was first inspired to tell this story, full of colorful characters like amateur athletes trying to keep a pure game with amateur ideals to the West Indian sports promoters who dominated this part of the sport, when he was working for the NBA in 1996 doing licensing to commemorate the league’s 50th anniversary. As part of that celebration it commissioned a supposedly comprehensive history called The Official NBA Encyclopedia. But out of the 800 pages in the book, Mr. Johnson said there were only three that dealt with the all-African American teams that played prior to 1950 when the NBA was formed.

“I wasn’t sure whether this was the league’s oversight or history’s oversight or both,” Mr. Johnson said. “I wanted to find out more, but no one seemed to know anything about these earlier teams or their collective history, not the league’s resident historian, not the reference librarians at the New York Public Library or at the Library of Congress, not even the curators at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. It seemed that the history of the pioneers of the Black Fives era of basketball had been lost, forgotten, buried, ignored, or all of the above.”

Instead of just letting this era remain lost in history, Mr. Johnson decided to do something about it.

While all serious baseball fans know about the Negro Leagues where black athletes excelled at a time when professional baseball was closed to them, the same knowledge wasn’t common about basketball. Basketball didn’t integrate professionally until the 1940’s and these all-African American teams, many of whom were amateurs, were their only chance to play.

“What makes this history relevant today is that these pioneers faced and overcame difficult challenges and tremendous adversity with no roadmap and limited resources,” Mr. Johnson said. “That is inspiring and possibly even instructional in modern times.”

Mr. Johnson said when he started his work no one knew much about this history.

“Shedding a light on the history of these forgotten pioneers has been rewarding, mainly because it is inspiring and motivational to all kinds of people, young, old, black, white, whatever,” Mr. Johnson said. “I also advocate on behalf of the descendants of these pioneers, sometimes behind the scenes, to help make sure that their forefathers are properly recognized. That’s what keeps me going, despite the fact that it hasn’t always been easy.”

This isn’t just a book for Mr. Johnson. He formed a business out of it that has been able to set up licensing partnerships with Nike, Converse and other major companies and he is hoping to turn into something even more by building a non-profit operation to support education, community building and youth initiatives.

But it all starts with a previously unknown history for basketball.

“People are fascinated and inspired by this tale,” Mr. Johnson said. “Most people love basketball, and you can hardly find anyone who doesn’t love culture. Basketball is a sport had a different and perhaps larger meaning back then. You can see it in the eyes of the men and women in the vintage photographs of African-American basketball teams from that era. They were not happy, or sad, or mad just intent and purposeful. There is a lot to be said for that. Our corporate logo shows a starting lineup of five players who are ‘ready’ not just ready to play, but ready for a cause. To me that captures what was going on in the hearts and minds of black basketball players back then. People today seem to really appreciate that, and they especially want to share this sentiment with their kids.”

This is Mr. Johnson’s first book. Originally he had intended to write a more comprehensive profile of the dozens of all-black teams that played prior to the NBA’s founding with about 10 pages apiece on each league. But with close to 50 teams and pioneers that quickly grew into a huge undertaking and he thought it wiser to break the project up into smaller books as a series. This is the first of what he hopes are several more since the tale does not end with just the Alpha Physical Culture Club. They were one of the pioneers, but there were so many others and Mr. Johnson said he remains eager to tell their stories.

More information is available online at BlackFives.com.


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