The Black Fives

By Tony McClean
Updated: February 26, 2005
The Black Fives
Arthur AsheThe Black Fives
L To R:Arthur Ashe & The Black Fives

BRISTOL, CT —For Claude Johnson it all began by just reading a book. Arthur Ashe’s chronicle of the black athlete “A Hard Road To Glory” was an eye-opener for the Brooklyn native. Johnson , who was working in research for the NBA at the time, was intrigued by the history he read from the book especially the basketball chapter.

He knew pro hoops existed back in the day, but little did he know that some of its past had been right in his backyard.

Teams like the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, the Independent Pleasure Club of New Jersey, and the Harlem Renaissance were prominent in a era of basketball from 1904-1925. It was the era of the “Black Fives”.

Just after basketball was invented in 1891, teams were called “fives” in reference to its starting players. Teams made of entirely black players were known as “Black Fives”.

Among some of the greatest players of that era was civil rights activist and actor Paul Robeson (St. Christopher Club of Harlem), Edwin Horne, (Smart Set) the father of singer-actress Lena Horne, and Mike Briscoe (Vandal Athletic Club of Atlantic City).

“Mr. Ashe mentioned several players and teams”, Johnson added. “Seeing some of the names of the teams really piqued my interest. As I started to explore it more, I realized that this was just another aspect of our history that wasn’t being talked or written about.”

Since then, Johnson and his associates have formed the Black Fives, Inc. The small company ( is dedicated to researching, protecting, and revealing the stories and accomplishments of a once-forgotten, but historically significant group of African-American athletes and businessman.

On the website, the early history of basketball just jumps out at you. A living, breathing perspective of pro hoops long before the NBA is a living testament to the work done by Johnson and his staff.

“There are folks that think basketball begins and ends with the NBA”, said Johnson. “But now they have a better perspective after seeing the history, and the jerseys, and the players who were a part of this important time.”

Over the last few months, Black Fives has been featured on several TV stations including BET and Fox Sports Net. Just late last year, the site’s throwback jerseys were highlighted in an article in Sports Illustrated.

Among some of the more famous customers featured in their ads have been “American Idol” singer Ruben Studdard, rappers Jay Z and Ludacris, and athletes Allen Iverson, Troy Vincent, and Allen Houston.

“What we’re hoping to accomplish is the 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 with our contributions.”

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