Martin Johnson: Everyone remembers baseball's Negro Leagues. Here's the story of the basketball counterpart.





The story of the Negro Leagues of Baseball, a circuit of teams that provided a showcase for many of Black America's top athletes during the first half of the 20th century, is well known. But the story of the Black Fives, a parallel set of basketball teams, is just beginning to come to light.

The Black Fives typically refers to leagues that first thrived in the African-American communities of New York, Pittsburgh, Washington and Chicago in the teens and '20s but soon spread to the South and Los Angeles. "The Black Fives era was a particularly important and unique era in basketball," explained Matt Zeysing, a historian and archivist at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. "Not unlike today, the early game of basketball had a far-reaching impact on everyone involved: those who played, those who watched, and those individuals or organizations that profited from it," he continued. "During the Black Fives era, the stakes were higher."





The game of basketball was invented by James Naismith in 1891, and it caught on quickly. Before the turn of the century, it was being played widely in YMCAs and various athletic clubs across the country. By 1898, the game was being played professionally in Trenton, N.J. Edwin Henderson, a Harvard-educated physical-education teacher, introduced basketball to black students in the public-school system in Washington in 1904, and he founded the first league of all-black teams, the Interscholastic Athletic Association, two years later.
News of Henderson's endeavors spread along the East Coast, and by 1907 inter-city games between all-black teams were played. 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 game of basketball was still in its infancy and much slower than today's game. The courts were smaller, the basket was still literally that, and referees had to retrieve the ball with a stick after each score. There was a jump ball after each hoop. However, many black teams were sponsored by ballrooms, which would include games as part of their evening entertainment.

"There would be a big band playing before the game and at halftime," explained Claude Johnson, a marketer and historian who has researched the era extensively. "After the game, the band would return and a dance would go on until after midnight." Mr. Johnson said that being part of an evening of fun led to Black Five teams developing a faster, more athletic and daring style of play. "The game wasn't just seen as an athletic science, but it was also entertainment."...



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