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Basketball History hangs at New York Arena

Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.

It’s fair to say that most Americans are familiar with the Negro Baseball League. Tech giant Google even decorated their homepage with an image of late icon Jackie Robinson — who left his all-black team to integrate Major League baseball — to celebrate his birthday last month, but what of the Black Fives Negro basketball league, where Robinson also played? On Monday, Brooklyn, N.Y.’s Barclays Center, along with Black Fives Foundation founder and expert Claude Johnson, attempted to bridge that information gap with an installation of historical photos of forgotten teams such as the Smart Set Athletic Club.

“It’s so amazing that these images are hung [in the arena] because the Smart Set played right here in Brooklyn,” Johnson told The Root earlier this week during a preview event. On the Nets’ court, children from Brooklyn’s P.S. 282 tried their hands at using Black Fives playing rules — no dribbling and then shooting the ball allowed.

The Black Fives, named for the number of players on the court, spanned from 1904 to 1950. This Negro league developed before the National Basketball League and National Basketball Association became racially integrated in the 1940s and 1950, respectively. The talented players on teams such as the Harlem Rens — short for Renaissance — carved a path for what would become the NBA’s modern and integrated game.

In the Barclays Center, six images of black basketball players, both men and women, hang on granite-like canvases on either side of the facility’s main entrance in a winding hall. The photos depict the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn in 1908, 1909, 1911 and 1912, as well as the New York Girls team in 1910, but only one photo shows a single player, William “Dolly” King.

According to Johnson, in the early 1900s most major American cities had a Negro basketball club, and if the club’s roster included King, they were probably going to win. King dominated on teams such as the Harlem Rens and the Rochester Royals, though his son, Michael King, says he never saw his father as a dynamic athlete.

“I learned more about my dad from Claude than I did from my father,” King told The Root. “He was very unassuming. He didn’t talk about this. However, my dad went to Long Island University [where he played on the basketball team], and when he died in 1969, L.I.U. gave me a full scholarship, even though I had no grades to get in.”

But even in college, racism smeared the basketball court for the elder King.

“My dad’s L.I.U. team went down to Virginia to play a school called Washington and Lee,” King said. “But the Lee players wouldn’t take the court if my father played, so he told his team and coach to go ahead and play the game and beat the guys without him.”

King later played for a number of Black Fives teams, but the barriers of racial segregation robbed him of the chance to shine in an integrated league in 1950. By the time the NBA and NBL began recruiting players of color, King was past his prime, and unlike in baseball, the new league didn’t promote its diverse history. So like many others, King’s work on the court became mostly buried until Johnson began to passionately research the Black Fives in 2001.

“I was researching the Black Fives on the side and was eventually laid off with a severance package. Right after 9/11, I was able to do the Black Fives Foundation as if it was my job,” Johnson said. “I created family trees in Ancestry.com to list the players’ other jobs, like postal worker or a porter. However, on Ancestry, once you make a family tree public, anyone can see it. I started getting messages from people asking me why I was interested in their grandfather, and I’d say I was doing Black Fives research. Many times, they didn’t even know about their family member’s involvement.”

On Sunday, the Black Fives photo installment will be formally introduced, when the Nets host the San Antonio Spurs at the Barclays Center. Johnson hopes these images will illuminate this buried bit of history and inspire others to be as excited as he is about the lost league’s legacy.

“I wasn’t hoping somebody would discover [my work], but it validates the research. It’s also a way to keep this legacy going,” Johnson said. “This presentation is the end of a journey but the beginning of being able to motivate, inspire and teach kids.”

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