In the period following the invention of basketball in 1891 by James A. Naismith, basketball teams were called “fives” because of the starting five players. Like the rest of society at the time, basketball was segregated; teams composed of all black players were known as ‘black fives’.
The period between 1891 until 1950 was known as the “Black Fives Era” in basketball. All black teams were supported by various black organizations including colleges, churches and social clubs.
Because there was no official black professional basketball league, blacks organized and arranged games through their own barnstorming circuit. Teams on the circuit competed for the right to be called “Colored Basketball World’s Champions.”
One of the greatest teams in the history of the “Black Fives Era” was composed mostly of students from Howard University. Washington, D.C.’s 12th Street Colored YMCA won the 1909-1910 Colored Basketball World’s Championship. Many of the members of this team went on to form Howard’s first varsity basketball team, which won the 1910-1911 national basketball title.
Paul Robeson, actor, recording artist, concert performer, radio star, human rights activist, cultural promoter and goodwill ambassador, played power forward for the Saint Christopher Club of Harlem, N.Y. Robeson led the “St.C’s” to three Colored Basketball World Championships.
Recently the “Black Fives Era” of basketball has been immortalized in the form of a clothing line of the same name. Former NBA researcher Claude Johnson started Black Fives, Inc. The company sells vintage jerseys and apparel from this classic era in sports history.
“What we’re hoping … is to let folks know that we as black folks were there when the game of basketball was in its infancy,” Johnson said. “We contributed and we helped the game evolve.”
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