Unearthing The Pre-NBA History Of African American Basketball

Unearthing The Pre-NBA History Of African American Basketball
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Photos: BlackFives.Org

One summer day during the early 1970s, an elderly man showed up at outdoor basketball courts in Harlem carrying a plastic bag from Duane Reade. The drugstore bag was filled with vintage photographs and aged newspaper clippings about what he claimed—if anyone would listen—were his amazing achievements in the game more than fifty years earlier.

The man, in his late eighties, was Will Anthony Madden, the suave former “King of Black Basketball,” and one of the main subjects of my book, The Black Fives: The Epic Story of Basketball’s Forgotten Era. Few at the uptown playgrounds believed him though. He was odd, wearing a woolen coat in the summer heat, telling players they were playing all wrong, and rambling about “scientific basketball.”

Some of the articles in the plastic bag were from the New York Amsterdam News, a Harlem-based African American weekly newspaper that began operating in 1909, when Will was already involved in basketball with a team called the St. Christopher Club, also based uptown. For weeks, Will had been trying hard to get the attention of Howie Evans, then a young sports columnist at that very same paper.

Howie’s continual outspoken advocacy for proper recognition of African American basketball pioneers who preceded the NBA had gotten the attention of the Basketball Hall of Fame.

So much so, that in February 1972, the Springfield, Massachusetts institution finally decided to enshrine Robert “Bob” Douglas, the well-deserving founder and owner of the New York Renaissance Big Five, a.k.a. the “Rens.” Douglas, a native West Indian, established the Rens in 1923 as the first Black-owned fully professional African American basketball team. The squad became, arguably, the greatest basketball team of the 20th century. With 2,588 wins out of 3,117 games from 1923 to 1948—a staggering winning percentage of 83% spanning 25 years—the Rens eclipsed even those legendary UCLA and Boston Celtics dynasties.

After the Hall enshrined Douglas in April 1972, Will sped up his efforts to contact Howie, all the while battling health problems. How difficult must it have been for Will to live most of his adult life carrying a truth no one recognized, acknowledged, or believed, in hopes that someone would? “It is very seldom that the pioneer in any walk of life reaps the harvest from the seed he has sown,” Lester Walton of the New York Age wrote prophetically in August 1907. “Ofttimes many of them even die without knowing the real good they have accomplished.”

Will was now that pioneer—elderly, frail, and racing against time to pass this history on to someone before it was too late. Read more.

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