Black and white photo of the Harlem Rens basketball team.

Image Credit: Mark Mauno (CC BY 2.0) 

The origins of basketball are well documented. Dr. James Naismith invented basketball in 1891 in Springfield, Massachusetts and went on to help jumpstart the Kansas Jayhawk basketball program. From then until the start of the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1946 there was a huge chunk of basketball history that remains unknown to most basketball fans. 


Today's basketball landscape is predominantly played by African Americans. Their basketball heritage can be traced to what is known as the “Black Fives Era”. Few people know about this era of basketball, at least not to the extent of baseball's Jackie Robinson and the Negro Baseball Leagues. Basketball was first introduced to blacks in the year 1904. Even though the NBA was founded in 1946, blacks were not allowed into the league until 1950 and 1950 marked the end of the Black Fives Era.

What does 'Five' denote? It only references a starting lineup, which consists of five players. This era of basketball was also known as early black basketball. The majority of basketball clubs during this time period were associated with churches, YMCAs and similar organizations. Dozens of teams flourished and gained national notoriety. None more than the “Harlem Rens”, a team born out of the Harlem Renaissance time period in New York City. Cities like Pittsburgh, Washington DC and Cleveland also held teams. The Rens became the face of black era basketball much like the New York Yankees are to Major League Baseball. Over a 25 year period, the team compiled more than 2500 wins in roughly 3000 games and boasted a winning percentage of more than 80%. Their home court was at the Renaissance Casino in Harlem.

The games became a social event that featured live music and dancing immediately following games. Most games took place in dance halls or ballrooms since most gymnasiums were white owned. The games obviously were about a lot more than basketball. It gave African Americans a way to socialize, be entertained and forget about the prejudices that they encountered on a daily basis. 

While James Naismith was the founding father of basketball and no one disputes that, no one was more instrumental in promoting basketball to blacks than Edwin Henderson, a Washington DC native. Henderson learned the game of basketball while taking summer classes at Harvard University in Boston. He wanted to promote basketball to African Americans with the hopes that they would eventually be able to attend college on scholarships since they had no money for schooling. He was right. Today, nearly all college and professional basketball teams consist of African Americans. Henderson was a fine player himself, playing for the Washington DC 12 Streeters and went on to help form the first black athletic conference; the Interscholastic Athletic Association. Other popular players of the era included Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, Cumberland Posey, Hudson Oliver and Mike Briscoe. To view a complete list of biographies of the top players of the era, check out the 

Just recently, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar helped compile both a book and documentary on the Black Fives Era. You can purchase those at the foot of the page. If anyone is interested in donating to the Black Fives Foundation, one can do so here. Black Fives Foundation. Their mission is to inspire, engage and coach black youths to pursue an education through basketball. I have also heard that the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, has an extensive ongoing exhibit that pays tribute to the Black Fives Era. 


 Related Articles