Black Fives

Black Fives

: "For the locomotive, see Black Five."

The Black Fives usually refers to basketball leagues that thrived in the United States in the period between 1900 and 1940, when racial segregation was institutionalized, in which African-American players in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago and Pittsburgh, and later other cities, engaged in community-based and inter-city leagues and rivalries. It is also sometimes referred to as "Early Black Basketball" or "Black Basketball".


When Edwin Henderson introduced the game to Washington, D.C., in 1904, 13 years after basketball was invented, he envisioned basketball not as an end in itself but as a public-health and civil-rights tool. Henderson believed that, by organizing black athletics, including basketball, it would be possible to send more outstanding black student athletes to excel at northern white colleges and debunk negative stereotypes of the race. He reasoned that in sports, unlike politics and business, the black race would get a fair chance to succeed. Henderson chose basketball as his marquee sport and he soon found that the game was a big hit on Washington’s segregated U Street. Almost simultaneously, black basketball was catching on quickly in New York, and these two cities served as the birthplace of the black game. In 1906, he founded the first league of all-black teams, the Interscholastic Athletic Association.

By 1907, inter-city games were being played along the East Coast between all-black teams. In 1908, the Smart Set Athletic Club, a team based in Brooklyn, won the first Colored Basketball World Championship, which became an annual tournament.

The New York All-Stars were formed in the fall of 1910, the creation of former St. Christopher star Major A. Hart. Hart wrote:

"That this game has taken a firm hold on our people has been demonstrated beyond a doubt. Now it is up to the players and their friends [to advance the black game] by not only forming a basketball league among the teams, but playing good, fast, clean games, eliminating therefrom all petty jealousies, quarrels and the little meannesses that have a tendency to disgust the people who assemble to witness these contests. We want to play the game as our white friends play it. That is, in the spirit of fairness and for the benefits that the exercise will give us and the enjoyment we can afford to our friends."

Hart clearly envisioned basketball as entertainment, not just physical education. Like Henderson and the 12th Street YMCA team, he recognized that a winning team of all-star performers would help further popularize the game among African-Americans in New York.

By the 1912-13 season, inter-city competition had become a staple of the black game. No longer did facing the best teams mean making a three-day trip to Washington or New York. Inter-city competition had grown in just four seasons into an expanding network of towns and cities that also included Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Newark, Baltimore and Atlantic City, and the college campuses of Howard, Hampton and Lincoln. In a few more seasons, the network would extend into the Midwest and New England.

The black game also had begun to develop a deeper pool of talent. At Harlem's St. Christopher Club, where teams were said to have the luxury of practicing "two hours a day regularly," the seeds already had been sown for the next great New York team. At Hampton, under the direction of Harvard-trained physical educator Charles Williams, another outstanding college team was in the making. At the same time, a boom in the construction of YMCAs for black men was under way, which would have a profound impact on the training of young players in cities throughout the country.

But in 1913, the black game's two best teams were the Howard Big Five and Pittsburgh's champion Monticello Athletic Club. Howard clearly had the more talent and cohesiveness as a team, with most of its stars having played together for four years. George Gilmore was the best center in the black game, Ed Gray was the best defender and Hudson Oliver was probably the second-best player overall.

The title of best player overall belonged to Monticello's Cum Posey. According to some, Posey stood shoulder to shoulder with Paul Robeson, Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston and other great black baseball and football players as the finest athlete of his generation. "Giants crumpled and quit before the fragile-looking Posey," recalled the Pittsburgh Courier's W. Rollo Wilson in the late 1920s. "He was at once a ghost, a buzz saw, and a 'shooting fool.' The word 'quit' has never been translated for him."

The rise of black professional basketball in America, with a particular emphasis on the New York Renaissance or the "Rens," a team considered by experts to be as important in the development of black basketball as the Harlem Globetrotters, began in 1920. The Rens' first victory over the white world champion Original Celtics in 1925 was a watershed in both basketball and race relations in the United States.

Robert Douglas, a resident of New York City who had emigrated from the British West Indies in about 1902, had founded the Rens-–the Renaissance Big Five--in 1923. By the late 1920s, the Rens had become one of the sport’s top draws in white and black America alike, setting the stage for the team’s undisputed world championship in 1939.

John Isaacs was a standout player for the Rens in the 1930s. He is credited with bringing the pick-and-roll play to the professional game.

In 1963, the Rens were named to the Basketball Hall of Fame as a team. Only their arch-rivals, the Original Celtics, and the Buffalo Germans received the same honor. The Rens' selection was well-deserved, for despite traveling and playing throughout America when the harsh effect of segregation was common and often legal,they compiled a 2318-381 record before the team folded in 1949.The Rens were named after the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem, where they played their first game on November 3, 1923, a 28-22 victory over a white team called the Collegiate Five.

The ballroom was owned by Sarco Realty Company and William Roach, who allowed the dance floor to double as a basketball court to accommodate Douglas's team. It was far from an ideal site for basketball, preceding the era of the beautiful, tailor-made arenas of today's game. "It was rectangular, but more box-like," said former Rens star Pop Gates, arguably the best player of his day and a Hall of Fame inductee.

"They set up a basketball post on each end of the floor. The floor was very slippery and they outlined the sidelines and foul lines. It wasn't a big floor. It was far from being a regular basketball floor. Other than high schools or armories, they had very few places to play at, except the Negro college. It was a well-decorated area – chandeliers, a bandstand. All the big [dance bands] played the Renaissance – Fatha Hines, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Chick Webb's band. They had the dancing before the ball game. People would pay and [dance] prior to the game, at halftime, and after the game."

Because the basketball games were, essentially, part of an evening of entertainment and fun, that led to Black Fives teams having to develop a faster-paced more entertaining game that involved more athletic and daring styles of play. Flashiness was considered an essential part of the game, not the self-glorifying aberration it was considered in the white game.

Dance halls lost their popularity in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the Depression strangled the economy and deprived people of spare cash. According to Susan J. Rayl in her Pennsylvania State University dissertation, "The New York Renaissance Professional Black Basketball Team, 1923-1950," lagging attendance convinced Douglas to send his team on the road in 1928 in the Midwest. In 1933, they began barnstorming the South. Beginning in 1931, he had assembled a team so skilled that it was nicknamed the Magnificent Seven because of the excellence of its key players: Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, Clarence "Fat" Jenkins, John "Casey" Holt, James "Pappy" Ricks, Eyre "Bruiser" Saitch, William "Wee Willie" Smith and Bill Yancey.

The highlight of the Rens' long history was an 88-game winning streak from January 1, 1933, through a game on March 27, 1933, when they lost to the Original Celtics. From 1932 to 1936, the Rens had a remarkable 497-58 record. "Our basketball heroes were the New York Rens and I used to see them play," Gates said. "I'd sneak in or get 50 cents to watch them play." He also had seen them practice because the Harlem YMCA, where Gates played ball as a youngster, was a practice site for the Rens.

In the 1940s, when the National Basketball Association's predecessor leagues were not much of a fan draw, the leagues stayed alive by staging doubleheaders with the Harlem Globetrotters, which had emerged from the Black Five league in Chicago. The Rens and other barnstormers helped nurture and popularize the game that is now an international, multi-billion dollar industry. John Isaacs, who played with the Rens from 1936 to 1940, earned $150 a month plus $3 a day meal money after signing with the Rens out of high school. "We enjoyed it and played it as a sport," Isaacs said. Today, pro basketball "is about money."

The Rens would leave New York for months at a time, traveling thousands of miles and playing every night and twice on Sundays. Sometimes they slept on their bus because they couldn't find a place to stay under the prevailing Jim Crow laws. Once, an Indiana restaurant owner put a tall screen around the team's table to segregate the Rens from other customers. Isaacs walked out. He sat in the bus and made a meal of salami on Ritz crackers.

On the court, the Rens faced hostile crowds, ruthless name calling and overtly biased referees. Their motto on the road was "Get 10," meaning that they wanted to come out and grab a quick 10-point lead. "That was the 10 the officials were going to take away from you," Isaacs recalls. In 1939, the Rens went 112-7, swept into Chicago and beat a top white pro team, the Oshkosh All-Stars, to win the first ever world championship tournament.

In the 1940s, the Globetrotters took over the Rens' mantle as the best team in the nation, black or white.

The Black Fives era ended in the 1940s with the advent of World War II and the gradual integration of white professional basketball leagues, such as the Basketball Association of America and the National Basketball League. When the two leagues merged in 1949 into the NBA, integrated teams soon became the norm. Teams drafted black players and there were few reports of racial tension among the early NBA players.

Nonetheless, even those who made the NBA after integration began were forced to be role players, concentrating on rebounding and defense. Black pros did not get a chance to showcase their talents in the league until the arrival of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

In December 2005, the United States Congress passed a concurrent resolution noting and commemorating the contributions to basketball and American society in general of early African-American professional basketball players. [ Congressional Concurrent Resolution Commemorating Contributions of Early Black Basketball Players, H.CON.RES.59, Dec. 22, 2005]

The Colored Basketball World's Championship: Titles, 1908-1925

*Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn--1907-08
*Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn--1908-09
*Washington 12th Street Colored YMCA--1909-10
*Howard University--1910-11
*Monticello Athletic Association--1911-12
*Alpha Physical Culture Club/Howard University--1912-13
*St. Christopher Club--1913-14
*New York Incorporators--1914-15
*Hampton Institute--1915-16
*New York Incorporators/St. Christopher Club--1916-17
*St. Christopher Club/New York Incorporators--1917-18
*St. Christopher Club--1918-19
*Loendi Big Five--1919-20
*Loendi Big Five--1920-21
*Loendi Big Five--1921-22
*Loendi Big Five--1922-23
*Commonwealth Five/Eighth Regiment Five of Chicago--1923-24
*Harlem Renaissance Big Five--1924-25



*Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America's Game Forever, Bob Kuska (2004, University of Virginia Press).
*"Black Teams of Basketball," (Chapter 25), by Susan J. Rayl, in Sports Encyclopedia North America, vol.5, edited by John D. Windhausen (1996, SENA and Academic International Press).
*Elevating the Game, Black Men and Basketball, Nelson George (1992, HarperCollins).


* [ The Black Fives Era]

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