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Barclays Center honors early African-American basketball teams, players

A photograph of the Smart Set Athletic Club

A photograph of the Smart Set Athletic Club from 1911 hangs in the main concourse of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn as part of an installation of six large images honoring the legacy of the Black Fives basketball league. (Feb. 4, 2013) Credit: Nancy Borowick

The images stare at you from the main concourse of Barclays Center. You stare back, entranced.

Of the six large photos, fittingly in sepia-toned black and white but depicting a colorful, long-ago epoch, five are century-old basketball team photos and one captures a single player, coiled to throw a baseball-style pass with his muscular right arm.

There are men and women, all posing, all wearing serious expressions. They were pioneers of African-American sports whose contributions went largely unrecognized. But in a celebration of Black History Month, the Black Fives have come back to life.

"We were very excited about the idea of bringing professional basketball to Brooklyn," said David Berliner, executive vice president of Forest City, the company that owns the Barclays Center. "But to think that it was already here, that was amazing. These photos are of real people, and their legacies live on."

The Black Fives Era was from 1904 until 1950, when the NBA began integration. It was a legacy forged in a segregated era -- hence the name Black Fives -- that started organizing African-Americans onto basketball teams. There were dozens of such teams in the Northeast, mostly in New York City, ranging from amateur to semipro to professional.

"The Black Fives are part of Brooklyn's history and part of African-American history," Berliner said.

One of the teams pictured, Brooklyn's Smart Set Athletic Club from 1908, was so dominant, urban legend has it, that they were known as "The Grave Diggers'' because they buried the competition.

Their stories, along with those of teams such as the Harlem Rens, the New York Girls, the Grumman (L.I.) Flyers and the Washington Bears, might have remained buried if not for Claude Johnson, who stumbled across a mention and a photo of the Smart Set Athletic Club while reading Arthur Ashe's book on the history of African-American athletes, "A Hard Road to Glory," in 1996, when he was working for NBA Properties.

"I was inspired. I thought, 'I'm black. I'm smart. I'm athletic. I'm from Brooklyn.' What's this all about?" said Johnson, who eventually wrote a book titled "Black Fives" and is founder and executive director of the Black Fives Foundation. "I learned about the era. It's not just history; it's a search for identity. We use this history to see if we can teach life's lessons."

Oh, what history it is. Oh, what a game they played.

Early Black Fives teams in Brooklyn, composed of what Johnson called "privileged black youths," shot at baskets that didn't have the bottoms cut out, with center jumps after every basket.

These low-scoring affairs were played by primitive rules that did not allow shots after dribbling, only passes. Players wore thin, kangaroo-leather shoes and knee pads to protect themselves from floors that often had splinters, nails and various other defects. Possession of loose balls that went out of bounds went to the team that got to the ball first.

"If you sat in the first row, your seat was not safe," Johnson said. So cages were erected around the court to protect the players and the fans. Hence the archaic nickname of basketball players as "cagers."

Nets guard C.J. Watson, who took part in a community event at Barclays Center last Monday, observed: "The rules they had to play by back then, some of the players in the NBA today wouldn't last. I didn't know anything about the Black Fives. It's pretty cool to learn that the first professional basketball team in Brooklyn wasn't us. It was the Black Fives. They were pioneers."

Descendants of those pioneers were touched by the attention and a touch overwhelmed.

"I had no idea. I'm thrilled that my grandfather's picture is up there," said Kevin Norman, grandson of Conrad Norman, coach of the New York Girls, shown in a 1910 photo. "I heard about my grandfather as a person who loved track and field and took me to watch the Millrose Games. He didn't even talk about playing basketball. They enjoyed it and took it seriously, but they didn't realize the foundation they were laying. It's great to learn that my grandfather was the impetus to black basketball in America."

Michael King, whose father, William "Dolly" King, is featured in the collection's only photograph of a single player, said: "My dad was unassuming. He never talked about being a pioneer."

But Dolly King chose the unusual path of a modest pro career for three different Black Five Era teams rather than staying at LIU, which was nationally ranked and undefeated in his senior year of 1941. "It was the only opportunity he had to play ball for money, so he took it," King said. "His first professional contract was for $2,500 to play for the Rochester Royals in 1947."

That was in the National Basketball League, which evolved into the NBA in 1949. One of King's teammates and friends on the team that later became the Cincinnati Royals was Red Holzman, the coach of the Knicks' only two championship teams.

Another Black Fives star whose image is part of what will be a permanent collection at Barclays is Hudson Oliver, who led the Smart Set Athletic Club to four Colored World Basketball Championships. "He was considered the finest basketball player of his time," Johnson said. "He should be in the basketball Hall of Fame."

But Oliver's great-granddaughter, Julia Alexander, revealed: "Most of what we heard in the family was about his career as a physician. He went by Doc Oliver. There weren't that many African-American physicians at the time, so 'Doc' was a title of respect in the community."

Alexander said she is proud to have learned of her great- grandfather's contributions. "They were making up the rules as they went along," she said, "but they are legacy rules -- they're still being used today."

Still, she said she can't help but wonder: "If you could have fed your family by playing basketball back then, maybe he wouldn't have become a doctor. You never know how history will turn out."

For 75-year-old Gail Lumet Buckley, whose mother is legendary entertainer Lena Horne and whose grandfather was Black Fives star Edwin "Teddy" Horne, history has turned out just fine. "I knew about the Smart Set because I have a medallion," Buckley said. "But I just thought, 'That's a nice thing they did when they were kids.' Then Claude called me and sent me his book and I found out how important Teddy was."

The descendants of the Black Fives will be honored at a ceremony during Sunday night's Nets-Spurs game. Before the game, the six photographic images will be on public display for the first time. "Look at the faces in those images," Johnson said. "They are us."

[NOTE: An earlier version of this story online indicated that Forest City was the majority owner of the Nets. Mikhail Prokhorov is the team's majority owner. Forest City is a minority owner in the team and a majority owner of Barclays Center.]

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