The Barclays Center is linking Brooklyn’s African-American basketball history and its present-day team, the Brooklyn Nets, with a new installation of historic photographs of the Black Fives, early-20th century African-American basketball teams, throughout the arena’s main concourse.
Before the NBA, there were the Black Fives, segregated basketball teams formed shortly after the game’s invention in 1891.
The Black Fives Era photographs chosen to be displayed include four pictures of Brooklyn’s historic team, the Smart Set Athletic Club, from 1908, 1909, 1911 and 1912.
To celebrate the unveiling of the large-scale photographs for Black History Month, the Barclays Center hosted an event Monday where Claude Johnson, founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, greeted students, members of the local community, and descendants of Black Fives players.
Johnson spoke about the historical significance of the Black Fives players and introduced each descendant present.
“One of the lessons of this history is, these players didn’t know they were going to have an affect on people one hundred years later,” Johnson said. “It’s not only bringing recognition, but it’s also using this as a way to motivate and inspire and teach kids.”
Brooklyn Nets point guard C.J. Watson also attended the ceremony. Watson participated with students from P.S. 282 in Park Slope in small games on the Nets’ court following the presentation.
“It’s good for all the kids to come and learn a part of their history,” Watson said. “Just to be here and learn something else about black history, especially during Black History Month.”
While the students played, Johnson explained how he started researching the Black Fives Era after being laid off from his job shortly after 9/11. He used old photos and players’ names to start building family trees. From there, he was able to determine their occupation and even contact living relatives.
Many descendants were unaware their ancestors had played basketball in the early 20th century.
Kevin Norman’s grandfather, Conrad Norman played basketball for Harlem’s Alpha Physical Culture Club.
“I had no idea,” Kevin Norman said of his grandfather’s basketball past. Norman said his father did a search about the Alpha Physical Culture Club about four or five years ago and, “Claude’s blog came up about the Black Fives.”
Norman’s grandfather can be seen in the photo of the New York Girls, a team he coached. “It’s great,” Norman said. “It’s great that my grandfather will forever be in the Brooklyn Nets arena.”
“You have to teach the kids about history,” Norman commented on the students present for the event. “You have to let them know what came before them, so they can carry it forward. It’s good that the kids got a chance to see this.”
William “Dolly” King was a phenomenal athlete who played professional football and baseball, as well as basketball.
Dolly King’s son, Michael said he knew his father was an athlete but “did not know the scope of it.”
“I am very excited,” Michael King said of his father’s picture being displayed at the Barclays Center. “My dad passed away in 1969 and to have all of this come about is quite a legacy.”
New York native Dolly King played three varsity sports at Long Island University before becoming the first African-American to join the Nation Basketball League during its post-World War II period in 1946.
As for the students from P.S. 282 at the ceremony: “I think that’s what my dad was all about,” explained King. “Sports is a wonderful vehicle to get kids to education to understand that they need to be educated to be successful citizens.”
Johnson wouldn’t call his extensive research into the first years of African-American basketball hard work, but rather a labor of love.
“This is the end of a journey but also the beginning of something,” Johnson said.
The photographs will be officially on display for the first time Sunday, February 10th. Johnson, along with several descendants, will be honored during a half-time presentation at the Brooklyn Nets game to celebrate the Black Fives Brooklyn legacy and Black History Month.
The Black Fives teams were trailblazers for all African-American basketball players that have followed.
According to Johnson’s website, Black Fives players “smashed the color barrier in pro basketball and helped pave the way for the Civil Rights Movement.”
Johnson recognizes that this project will affect all people, not just basketball players.
“Whatever way you approach it, basketball is much bigger than just the game.”
Follow Carrie Healey on Twitter @CarrieHeals.