- Donald Roe
A version of this article originally appeared in The Encyclopedia of African American History, 1896 to the Present.
Officials at the International Young Men's Christian Training School (now Springfield College) in Massachusetts asked Dr. James Naismith, a physical education teacher, to come up with an indoor activity for winter that would reduce rowdy behavior among its students, as well as keep them in shape during the winter. As a result, in 1891 Naismith created basketball as an indoor sport. It did not take long for basketball to become popular. Although it is not known exactly when African Americans began playing basketball, it is probable that the sport had already reached many black communities in the early 1900s, especially in the YMCAs, YWCAs, and athletic clubs in the North. Several blacks—most notably Dr. Edwin B. Henderson, the chief of physical education in the District of Columbia for what was then called the Colored School Division—were active at the turn of the twentieth century in making basketball a sport and leisure activity for black youths. Henderson attended a training session on basketball at Harvard University in 1904. He returned to Washington and introduced the sport at the local black Twelfth Street YMCA and adopted it as part of the interscholastic athletic program in the “colored” schools.
Henderson also played a pivotal role in organizing black athletic clubs in the District of Columbia and instituting regional play in basketball among black clubs along the East Coast, primarily in New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. Around the same time that Henderson was laying the foundation for competitive basketball among black youths in schools and athletic clubs, blacks in several other northern cities began to organize club teams outside the YMCA and YWCA. Sports enthusiasts created the Smart Set Club (SSC) around 1905 and introduced basketball as a competitive sport for men and women. However, sexism limited the participation of black women to only a few club teams. The SSC joined other clubs to form the Olympian Athletic League in New York. In 1907 African American basketball players representing the SSC and the Crescent City Athletic Club from Washington, D.C., participated in what was probably the first formal basketball game among black athletes involving the two cities.
Like track and field and other sports, basketball did not spread rapidly among black youths in the South. There were some social reasons for this relating to the structure of southern society. First, young blacks in the South lived primarily in rural areas and spent most of their time engaged in agricultural endeavors. This left little time for basketball or other leisure activities. Also, the segregated black schools existed on threadbare funding, leaving little money for athletic equipment or the construction of indoor gymnasiums. Further, there were fewer blacks in the South who had the resources to support athletic club teams. Fortunately YMCAs and YWCAs provided facilities for young black men and women to compete in team basketball and other sports. However, cities and towns in the South where there were black colleges fared better in establishing sports programs for African Americans.
Howard University, Hampton Institute, Virginia Union University, and several other black colleges began playing basketball around 1909. Howard's teams consisted of experienced athletes who had played basketball at the Twelfth Street YMCA in Washington. Consequently Howard had an advantage over many of its opponents and developed one of the most successful black collegiate basketball programs of the time. In 1912 Shaw University in North Carolina joined Howard, Lincoln University of Pennsylvania, and Virginia Union to form the Colored (later Central) Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA), the first black college conference for competitive sports. Other conferences emerged in the 1920s, including the Southwest Athletic Conference (SWAC) and the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC). Morgan State College joined the CIAA in the 1920s and under the guidance of the legendary coach Eddie Hurt became the dominant black college basketball team until the late 1930s.
While black colleges were expanding their participation in basketball despite inferior facilities and limited resources, some black athletes played basketball on white college teams, mainly in the Northeast and Midwest, but faced considerable opposition from segregationists. Among these pioneers were Wilbur Woods at the University of Nebraska (1907–1910), Cumberland Posey at Penn State University (1909), Paul Robeson at Rutgers University (1915–1918), and Charles Richard Drew, who was a star player for Amherst College (1923–1925). In the late 1930s and early 1940s Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson and Wilmeth Sidat-Singh made significant contributions to the basketball programs at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and Syracuse University, respectively, but black basketball players did not make a significant impact at white colleges until the 1950s.
Soon after Naismith created basketball, many entrepreneurs, including African Americans, established professional basketball teams and leagues. They quickly recognized basketball as a sport that had a potentially large fan base and that therefore was ripe for profit-making business ventures. Because segregation and racism prevented black athletes from playing on white professional teams, blacks created teams of their own. Posey, a former star on the Penn State University basketball team, was the most successful of these. Posey first formed a professional club team called Monticello that was mildly successful. He then established the Loendi Big Five in Pittsburgh, which featured some of the best black basketball talent available. Loendi dominated black basketball and probably would have done equally as well against the best white teams if not for segregation. Posey's teams ruled the world of black basketball until the advent of the Harlem Renaissance (the Rens) and the Harlem Globetrotters.
African American basketball players began playing in professional leagues in 1923 when Robert Douglas created the all-black Spartan Braves basketball team in New York. Douglas, in what proved to be a shrewd and bold move, signed a contract with the owners of the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem that allowed his team the permanent use of the ballroom for its games. The deal allowed Douglas to take advantage of the large crowds that frequented the ballroom and the various jazz establishments and nightclubs in Harlem. In return he changed the name of the team to the Harlem Renaissance. By associating his basketball team with the New Negro movement in Harlem, Douglas made his business venture seem progressive and supportive of the struggle for equal rights.
The Harlem Rens attracted some of the best black basketball players in the country, including James “Pappy” Ricks, Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, William “Pops” Gates, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, Zack Clayton, and others. The team was popular and made money, and in addition, Douglas offered his players full-salary contracts for the entire season rather than pay per game as had been the tradition. Within a short time the Harlem Rens became the best black basketball team in the country, challenged only by the Harlem Globetrotters. From the mid-1920s into the 1940s the Rens took on all challengers and comported themselves well against semipro, professional, and college teams, both black and white. The Rens’ schedules included competitive games against the all-white Boston Celtics, which piqued the interest of many basketball fans. The Rens won as many games as they lost to the Celtics, and, in fact, they beat the Celtics in what was deemed the world championship of professional basketball in 1932. In 1939 the Chicago Herald-American newspaper sponsored a basketball tournament that it called the first World Professional Basketball Tournament, and the Rens were among the twelve teams invited to participate. The Rens beat the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars of the segregated National Basketball League—a forerunner of the National Basketball Association (NBA)—to win the title.
The only other black basketball team to scale the heights that the Rens reached was the Harlem Globe Trotters (later Globetrotters). Contrary to popular belief, the Harlem Globetrotters did not originate in Harlem at all but rather on the south side of Chicago. Like that of the Harlem Rens, the founding of the Globetrotters was closely connected to a famous ballroom. I. J. Faggen, the builder of the Savoy Ballroom in New York, constructed another and more fabulous Savoy Ballroom in Chicago in 1927, and as an added attraction he signed a contract with the Savoy Big Five, the best club basketball team in Chicago, to play exhibition basketball games to complement ballroom dancing. During its inaugural season at the ballroom in 1928, the Savoy Big Five played before overflow crowds and defeated a collection of outstanding basketball teams that included teams from Howard University, Fisk University, and several other black colleges. In addition, their win over Loendi of Pittsburgh indicated that the Savoy Big Five was as good as any basketball team in the country.
The success of the Savoy Big Five was short-lived as a result of internal strife over salaries. Several members left the squad and formed an alternative team, which they named the Globe Trotters. In 1928, under Tommy Brookins's leadership, the Globe Trotters toured southern Illinois and Indiana. At some point Abe Saperstein, a local Jewish American athletic coach and sports enthusiast, gained control of the team. There are numerous contradictions, myths, and distortions about Saperstein's early affiliation with the Globe Trotters. Apparently Saperstein, forever the opportunist, had been a road and booking manager for Brookins's Globe Trotters when he decided to form a second Globe Trotter team to play in other areas of the Midwest. When Brookins finally confronted him about the matter, Saperstein attempted to convince Brookins that he had acted in the best interest of everyone. Apparently, at some point Brookins decided to pursue other interests, disbanded his version of the Globe Trotters, persuaded Saperstein to take several of his players, and essentially handed him the team on the proverbial silver platter.
Those who saw the Globetrotters play later remembered the comedic antics of Inman Jackson, Meadowlark Lemon, Reece “Goose” Tatum, and others. Include the remarkable ball handling and dribbling skills of Marques Haynes and Curly Neal and one was left with the memory of an exciting, entertaining, and memorable event. The score, or who won the game, was irrelevant. The Globetrotters’ comedy routines made the average fan forget that the Trotters were excellent and legitimate basketball players or that it was a serious basketball team in the beginning.
In the ten years after he assumed control of the Trotters in 1929, Saperstein, using his considerable booking and marketing skills, took the Globetrotters on endless tours of the Midwest and mountain states using more and more comedy routines. However, he continued to challenge the Harlem Rens to play for the “colored” basketball championship. Saperstein's prayer was answered when in 1939 the Hearst Newspaper Syndicate allocated a $10,000 prize to sponsor a World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago that would include the best black and white basketball teams. The Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem Globetrotters were among the twelve teams invited. The Rens defeated the Globetrotters in the semifinals. The two teams met in the finals the following year, and the Trotters avenged their loss to the Rens.
The victory marked the beginning of the Globetrotters’ reign not only as the best black basketball team but also, arguably, as the best basketball team in the world. Unfortunately it also marked the decline of the Rens, who for almost twenty years had been the kings of the basketball world. In 1950 the Globetrotters made their first European tour en route to becoming one of the best-known sports teams in the world. However, except for playing, and often beating, collections of the best college players in the country, comedic entertainment became the Trotters’ forte, some of which occasionally appeared tawdry, stereotypical, and in the minstrel tradition. Saperstein had his critics in the African American community during the years of the civil rights movement, including those who believed that he used his influence to prevent integration in the nascent National Basketball Association so as not to lose his player base. Most African Americans, however, viewed the Globetrotters' comedy as humane, entertaining, and inclusive.
William Garrett enrolled at Indiana University in 1947 and became the first African American to play basketball in the Big Ten conference, where he earned All-American honors in 1951. In 1948 Don Barksdale, an All-American forward on the UCLA basketball team, became the first African American basketball player selected to the United States Olympic basketball squad. In addition, Barksdale was the first black to make an impact on the basketball program of a major white college after World War II. Despite the success of Garrett and Barksdale, there was no rush to recruit black basketball players at white colleges even after the University of San Francisco won national basketball titles in 1955 and 1956, thanks largely to the black players William “Bill” Russell and K. C. Jones. The African Americans on white college teams during this time continued to endure physical threats and discrimination in hotels and restaurants when they traveled with their white teammates.
Russell, Jones, the ill-fated Maurice Stokes (who died prematurely), Hal Greer, Elgin Baylor, Guy Rodgers, the three-time All-American Oscar Robertson, and Wilton “Wilt” Chamberlain, the most dominating seven-foot basketball player ever, all entered the NBA in the 1950s and early 1960s after successful tenures at white colleges. Their success on the basketball court translated into an economic benefit for the colleges: as the money for the television rights to broadcast college games increased tremendously, a successful athletic program could enrich the coffers of major white colleges by millions of dollars. In this environment the recruitment of outstanding black athletes was imminent, except in the South, where entrenched segregation remained.
When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, most white colleges in the South still had not begun to integrate their sports programs. Furthermore, the white colleges outside the South that were actively recruiting black basketball players were hesitant about having too many blacks on their teams. The 1963 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) basketball championship, in which Loyola University of Chicago defeated the heavily favored University of Cincinnati, was something of a milestone in that Loyola had four blacks in its starting lineup and Cincinnati had three. The 1966 NCAA final provided an even more dramatic racial contrast when Don Haskins, the coach of tiny Texas Western College, started five African Americans against the lily-white University of Kentucky basketball team. That the racial overtones of the game were so visibly pervasive was unfortunate, because Texas Western's victory over mighty Kentucky was truly one of the great upsets in modern sports. Kentucky's coach Adolph Rupp was a basketball icon, but he was also a captive of southern convention in racial matters and did not recruit a black player until 1972.
As basketball became popular among black youths, the fast-paced, expressive style of the basketball played on the playgrounds and at YMCAs in black urban communities differed significantly from the more conservative style played in white communities, for example in Indiana and West Virginia, where basketball among white youths became akin to a second religion. The style was reflected in the play of the Harlem Rens in the 1920s, which may best be described as up-tempo and improvisational. However, the rules that governed basketball at the time slowed the game down considerably, making an up-tempo game impossible. Nonetheless the style continued in black communities but evolved and changed. The African American basketball players who entered white colleges and the NBA in the 1950s and 1960s popularized this style of basketball.
For fans and players one of the most exciting plays is the dunk shot—another element of modern basketball that may have originated on the playgrounds of African American communities. Stories abound about legendary dunkers like the Harlem Globetrotter great “Jumping” Jackie Jackson, who showcased his talent at Rucker Park in New York, the most famous basketball playground in America. However, creative dunkers like Jackson could be found on almost any black playground. Russell, Chamberlain, Walt Bellamy, Nate Thurmond, and Kareem Abdul Jabbar (Lew Alcindor), most of whom honed their skills on playgrounds, were so tall and athletic that dunking seemed almost unfair to some. In fact, the governing committee of the NCAA, in a move directed at Alcindor during his tenure at UCLA, banned the dunk in college basketball from 1967 to 1976. Ironically, shorter players like Gus Johnson, Connie Hawkins, Dominique Wilkins, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, and Michael Jordan brought the dunk shot to the status of high art.
It was not until the 1990s that the contemporary manifestation of playground basketball became known as “street” or “blacktop” basketball. References to street basketball were pervasive among players, sportscasters, and fans as if it were new. What they were really talking about was the fast-paced, inventive, expressive, in-your-face basketball played in urban black neighborhoods that had been a significant and influential part of sports culture for years. Several companies even produced commercials advertising athletic shoes and other products using the jargon and sights and sounds of urban, black America. Basketball players, young and old, black and white, male and female, emulated this style of basketball on playgrounds, in middle schools, in high schools, in colleges, and on the professional level. The assumption that street basketball was a recent phenomenon was laughable to old-timers who had played basketball or watched the game change dramatically over the years.
It is difficult to pinpoint the origin of modern street basketball, but one possibility involves a game, with many different versions, that black youngsters, both rural and urban, played on playgrounds. The purpose of the game—called “Horse,” “Chump,” or other names—was to create and make a very difficult basketball shot, which your opponents then had to replicate in every detail including dribbling and body motions. If an opponent did not duplicate, he received a letter for each unduplicated shot until the letters spelled the name of the game being played, and the player was eliminated. The elimination continued until only one player was left as the winner. Whatever the version, the game resulted in some very creative basketball that some believe laid the foundation for the way athletes play modern basketball. In fact, some of those same old-timers also scoff at historians’ suggestion that Hank Luisetti, the white Stanford University basketball star (1934–1936), invented the jump shot—a shot that revolutionized basketball—claiming to have seen black youths employ the jump shot on the playgrounds before Luisetti popularized it.
Fancy, sleight-of-hand, jitterbug dribbling—one significant component of modern, urban basketball—appears to have a specific origin, but in an unlikely place. Marques Haynes of Sand Springs, Oklahoma, spent much of his early youth dribbling a ball of some kind and became extremely proficient in doing so. However, even though he was the star of Langston University's basketball team in 1942, few people knew about Haynes's unbelievable dribbling skills until the championship basketball game of the Southwest Conference Tournament in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1945 that matched two powerful black colleges, Langston and Southern. With Langston having an insurmountable lead in the final minutes of the championship game, Haynes put on the most incredible display of dribbling and ball handling ever seen in a basketball game before or since. He dribbled the ball between his legs, behind his back, lying on his back, and lying on his side. The entire exasperated Southern University team chased the jitterbug-dribbling Haynes without success, much to the delight of twenty-five hundred screaming fans. Eventually, with the time clock winding down to zero, Haynes streaked to the basket, made a layup shot, and just continued running into the locker room.
Following the game against Southern University, Langston defeated the mighty Harlem Globetrotters, and after graduating in 1946 Haynes spent the greater part of his basketball career as the Globetrotters’ own ball-handling genius. In the process he toured the world and became the most emulated of all the Globetrotters. Every young basketball player who saw him, white or black, wanted to be like Marques. The overwhelming consensus of those who saw Haynes in his prime is that no one before or since could control the basketball the way he did. Contemporary high school, college, and professional basketball players who believe that they are dribbling like Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Guy Rodgers, Magic Johnson, Isaiah Thomas, Pete Maravich, or Nate Archibald are actually emulating Haynes.
The changes in basketball since the 1970s have been especially important for African American players. Although women had played basketball from its inception, sexism prevented women's basketball from getting popular support until Congress passed Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which stipulated that colleges and universities that received federal funds had to provide sports programs for women. This gave the three-time All-American Cheryl Miller, who attended the University of Southern California, and other black female athletes an opportunity to compete in collegiate basketball. The International Olympic Committee inaugurated women's basketball in 1976, and numerous black females have played in the Olympics since then. Furthermore, the superstars Cynthia Cooper, Nikki McCray, Sheryl Swoopes, Tina Thompson, and other black players have helped to popularize women's professional basketball since the inauguration of the Women's National Basketball Association in 1996.
Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers and Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, among others, represented the public face of professional basketball from the mid-1980s into the 1990s, and they were excellent ambassadors as the popularity of the sport continued to grow and as player salaries spiraled upward to millions of dollars. Johnson's flashy style as—arguably—the best passer ever, his ebullient personality, and his knowledge, love, and respect for the game made him a fan favorite. Jordan's domination in winning ten scoring titles, leading Chicago to six NBA titles, and his creative dunking ability made him the preeminent player of his time and, maybe, of all time. In addition his popularity led to commercial endorsements that far exceeded his salary as a basketball player and opened the door for other African American athletes to endorse products. In addition Jordan and Johnson helped to popularize a style of basketball internationally that originated and evolved in black urban communities.
The dominance of blacks in basketball coincided with the civil rights movement and resulted in more opportunities for blacks as coaches in college and professional basketball and related occupations. In 1984 John Thompson of Georgetown University became the first African American basketball coach to lead a team to the national title. Bill Russell and Lenny Wilkins are among a number of black coaches who have achieved success in professional basketball, while Wes Unseld and Wayne Embry are typical of blacks gaining entrance to management positions. It is not unusual to find African Americans like Phil Chenier, Walt Frazier, Kenny Smith, Cheryl Miller, and others working as analysts on broadcasts of basketball games in both national and local television and radio markets. Some blacks, like Manny Jackson, the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, are also seeking to become owners of professional basketball teams. These advances in basketball would have been unimaginable in the 1950s.
[See also Harlem Globetrotters; Sports, College and Amateur; Sports, Professional; and biographical entries on figures mentioned in this article .]
- Ashe, Arthur R., Jr. A Hard Road to Glory, Basketball: The African-American Athlete in Basketball. New York: Amistad, 1993. Includes a valuable reference section.
- Green, Ben. Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters. New York: Amistad, 2005. An informative, well-written, and well-researched account.
- Mallozzi, Vincent M. Asphalt Gods: An Oral History of the Rucker Tournament. New York: Doubleday, 2003. An informative narrative about the most famous street basketball playground and tournament in America; lacks an analysis of its social significance.