Think of how much you know about basketball, or better yet, how much the oldest ol’ head you know knows about the game.
Names like Wilt the Stilt, Russell, “The Logo,” Baylor and The Big O likely fly from his weathered lips with regularity, he laughs when you try to say that LeBron and Durant would put up numbers just as crazy if their teams averaged 125+ possessions a game as was normal in the 1960s, metrics mean nothing to him — you just had to see it, he says.
Fissures between generations of hoop heads is a natural thing and for those of us who can still voice our opinions repping the ballers one is closest two mostly just produce healthy debate that can lead to illumination and appreciation of athletes you may not have otherwise looked too deeply into.
But what about those generations and those pioneering basketball players who “trotted” some of the original boards laid down to play the game? A time when those whom Dr. James Naismith taught the game directly to were still around to spread the gospel, a time when racial integration in the sport was merely a curiosity, put on in specific exhibitions and not consistently at basketball’s highest levels, shutting out many of its greatest talents of the time.
Do you even know such a time existed? Just how knowledgeable are you of basketball history?
Odds are you’re not as knowledgeable as Claude Johnson, a man who has made it his mission to make sure you and you and everyone who couldn’t see it knows at least a little more about basketball as it was in the early 1900s, particularly how it was for African-Americans who had their time on the outside looking in with this sport just as it did with baseball at the time.
With that being the case certain innovations occurred and teams that were commonly known as “Black Fives” were developed to showcase players, coaches and owners who were only given a separate and not equal court to play on.
Born out of a blog he started called “Black Fives,” Johnson, a long-time corporate executive, now is founder and executive director of the not-for-profit Black Fives Foundation, whose mission is to use the pre-1950 history of African-American basketball teams to help teach life lessons while honoring its pioneers and their descendants.
Johnson’s book “Black Fives: The Alpha Physical Culture Club,” told the history of a particular early 20th Century all-black basketball team and broke open his work on a national level. Reproductions of apparel from teams of the era like the Harlem Rens also bridged gaps during the time when throwback jerseys were hottest in the streets.
In their inaugural year based in Brooklyn, NY, the Brooklyn Nets and the Barclays Center permanently installed Johnson’s compilation of historical photographic images of African-American basketball pioneers throughout its arena concourse. The display was such a hit that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg would proclaim February 10, 2013 Black Fives Day in the city. The Black Fives movement has come a long way in a short time and it is just beginning.
Johnson recently caught up with Regal Radio’s Brandon Robinson in New York and discussed the education of black history through basketball, his personal challenges for Adidas and the NBA as well as the new Black Fives exhibition opening March 14 at the New-York Historical Society, displaying items from the years 1904 through 1950 before professional basketball became integrated. Relics from the era including game balls with laces, game jerseys and hand-stitched leather and canvas sneakers are all planned to be on display.
WARR: Tell us about the Black Fives exhibition at the New York Historical Society.
Claude Johnson: It’s the first ever exhibition of Black Fives-era artifacts. We have over 150 items and this exhibition will be featured at the New York Historical Society from March 14th through July 20th of this year.
WARR: Just what is your relationship with basketball? What prompted you to start the Black Fives Foundation?
Johnson: While I was working at the NBA in licensing, I learned about the NBA and its history, but I noticed there was something missing, which was what about all the African-American teams? So when (the NBA) celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1996, they published a book called The NBA Encyclopedia of Basketball, which was an 800 page book, but it only had three pages of the earlier teams and really there were only two teams: the New York Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters. So I became really curious about more.
That lead me on a journey of discovery where I realized there were dozens of teams. I began to explore that further and eventually left the NBA, went to Nike, eventually left Nike, but eventually got to the point where I can do this full time.
WARR: For Black History Month, the Black Fives Foundations partnered with Fox Sports for television spots. Can you tell us more about that?
Johnson: We were approached by Fox Sports Net, who has 14 NBA markets that they cover — including the Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks, Miami Heat to name a few. Their idea was that they wanted to take NBA players like Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan and match them up with Black Five era pioneers. So they wanted me to choose the Black Five era pioneers that would be appropriate. I sat back and selected the ones that I felt needed the most attention.
So, for example, Blake Griffin got matched up with “Dolly” King, whose image happens to be in the Barclays Center, but other players included Cumberland Posey Jr., Hudson Oliver, Edwin “EB” Henderson, John Isaacs. (Fox Sports) also did shoutouts to teams like the New York Rens and the Washington Bears.
What was nice about it was that we wrote the script, so Blake Griffin would say something like: “Long before I won the NBA Slam Dunk Competition, there was William “Dolly” King.” Then he would say a few words about “Dolly” King and his accomplishments in his career.
At the end of the 30 seconds, (Griffin) would say, “‘Dolly’ King, one of the original pioneers.” In between that, there would be original images of Dolly that we provided. It does two things: one, it gives a shout-out to this history which is always awesome, to get that visibility. More importantly, it is the first ever time that the NBA, a series of NBA players, actually teamed up with this history. Fox Sports Net did a great job (of) just identifying this opportunity.
WARR: Although it was a fad, the throwback jersey era was a conversational starter. The millennial generation gravitated to them because of the designs and older folks liked them because it was a piece of history and it seemed to prompt (younger) folks to learn more about the league, do you agree?
Johnson: That was a big deal, throwbacks were everywhere! For a while you couldn’t find them and you had to go back for certain ones. It was a lot like the retro sneaker craze in basketball footwear in particular. But what’s interesting was that there were certain retailers who were leaders in that. One in particular was Vivid Replays in Atlanta, (they featured) a lot of NBA players and NFL pro teams.
They would call me and say, “Yo Claude, Allen Iverson was just in here and he bought nine of your jerseys.” Sure enough he’d be courtside (before the NBA’s formal dress code) and wearing a Black Fives retro jersey. That’s the same with a number of other players and we were fortunate because people really sought us out. I think we struck a nerve with those products. It’s very difficult to be a wholesaler and sell to retailers and get everything right. I can’t wait until we start doing throwbacks again because everybody asks for them, especially the New York Rens.
How cool would it be if the New York Knicks had New York Rens jerseys on? Or the Chicago Bulls had Chicago Crusaders or the Philadelphia 76ers had Philly Panthers? We’ve been to the league and we’ve had discussions and sometimes it’s the matter of the timing being right.
WARR: (The NBA is) making all types of jerseys with cool designs and secondary jerseys with sleeves, it would be cool to see those types of jerseys, but I’d imagine that there are complexities to getting that done.
Johnson: There are complexities to it. Their licensee for on court apparel is Adidas and the league probably wouldn’t make Adidas embrace this. It would really have to be Adidas who comes to the league and say, “hey, we want to do this.” So, we would have to wait patiently for Adidas America to make that decision to see the intrinsic goodwill and value — even if they do it just as a local promotional goodwill, or even a cross-marketing effort where certain schools or certain groups or certain teams gets those jerseys on a very limited basis. It’s not going to be this major thing, because you don’t want to take over every other (licensing) effort, but we see it as an opportunity in a limited way.
WARR: Black Fives has been successful as of late. Have you actually reached out to Adidas?
Johnson: Yeah, I mean it’s funny, we’ve spoken to the people at Adidas that are in charge of merchandising and as well as basketball for the entire corporation and we were told that their focus is really trying to stay number two and to focus on expanding the Derrick Rose brand.
We certainly appreciate that because everyone has to fight the battles that they fight, but sometimes you have a window where you can create something and still advance your cause and still advance your brand and do it in a certain way that’s organic. I don’t know if you remember back when Reebok had Iverson and they started to spend money on certain guys like 50 Cent and it was a lot of money and they did it a certain way but people on the inside — meaning us— we knew that they were just purchasing that access rather than doing it organically. So there’s a way to do it where it’s authentic and it’s genuine and it’s meaningful.
You don’t always have to do it by spending a lot of money, but people recognize your brand and say: “Wow you know what? This is really cool. You know, I have to take another look at Adidas, I gotta take a second look at them because I didn’t know that this was in them.”
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