The Brooklyn Nets gave 30 Brooklyn kids a tour of the Black Fives murals in the Barclays Center on Friday, February 9. The event, held in partnership with the Black Fives Foundation and Salvation Army, was part of Black Fives Day festivities.
The Black Fives era of basketball began when the first organized African-American basketball teams formed. It ended when the NBA signed its first black players. Founded in 2013, The Black Fives Foundation aims to “research, preserve, showcase, and teach the pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball, while honoring its pioneers.” Since unveiling the large-scale photographs in the concourse in February 2013, Barclays Center has continued to honor the legacy of basketball’s African-American pioneers.
The kids, ages 10-14, buzzed with excitement as they awaited the start of the tour. Little did they know, they were in for a surprise. Three Nets players — Jarrett Allen, Spencer Dinwiddie, and D’Angelo Russell — joined the tour just before it began. Dinwiddie welcomed the now overjoyed group on behalf of the Nets and the tour got underway.
Claude Johnson, executive director of The Black Fives Foundation, led the group from picture to picture. At each stop he explained the rich history behind each photo. In doing so, he revealed Brooklyn’s integral role in bringing organized basketball to the African-American masses. The Smart Set Athletic Club, formed in 1904 by an elite group of Brooklyn African-Americans, created the first independently organized black basketball team in 1907. They so dominated the competition during their first two seasons that they garnered the nickname, “The Grave Diggers.”
As the group moved between pictures, the players mingled casually with the kids. They are in a unique position within the NBA, being so close to the game’s African American roots. Each was humbled and honored in his own way to be a part of the event. “It makes me more appreciative,” said Allen. “They had to struggle through that before I could come here,” he continued in reference to the high mortality rate of black people coming to the U.S., contributing to the genesis of African-American basketball clubs. It was also an opportunity to gain a new perspective. Russell added, “It’s an opportunity to sharpen up on the facts, stuff that I never even knew about. There’s a lot of history in the Barclays Center alone.”
The kids were thrilled to see some of their favorite Nets players, but weren’t too starstruck to talk to them. They playfully asked questions and spoke to the players as they would speak to a new friend.
After taking the group through Smart Set Athletic Club’s history and some of its key players, Johnson stopped next in front of the New York Girls. Formed in Harlem in 1910 as the first independent all-black women’s basketball team, they defeated the Jersey Girls on February 26, 1910. It was the first ever official basketball game between two female African-American teams.
Johnson is a walking encyclopedia on the history of basketball in the African-American community. With a warm demeanor and infectious passion, he imparted just a sliver of his knowledge upon the kids throughout the tour. As a father himself, he understood his audience and catered his presentation to them.
“When I look at you,” he said to the kids, “I feel this is my family.” He summed up at the tour’s conclusion: “It’s important to know. We don’t just live here. Somebody didn’t just give this to us, but also, back in the day, some really great things happened as part of our community that we can be proud of.”