Black Legends

By Michael Hudson
Updated: February 19, 2006

DETROIT, MI — John Kline hadn’t thought about Ruben Bolen in decades. Back in the1950s, slots in the NBA had been precious for black ballplayers –one or two per team and that was it. Instead Kline and Bolen traveled the world together as Harlem Globetrotters. When things got tough, Kline depended on Bolen to back him up.

Then one day in 1995, Kline read a painful newspaper item: Ruben Bolen was dead. Bolen, 61, had died homeless, stabbed to death in a parking lot in San Francisco. It hurt Kline, and it made him think: What was happening to guys like Bolen, talented black men who’d played the pro game when it was rough and tumble . . . and racist?

Most of them earned little playing for the Globetrotters, the New York Renaissance, the Washington Bears, and other barnstorming squads that endured endless road trips and unyielding Jim Crow laws. Even those who made the NBA after integration began in 1950 were forced to be role players, concentrating on rebounding and defense. Black pros didn’t get a chance to showcase their talents in the league until the arrival of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.

Kline, who worked as a school administrator in Detroit after his playing days, decided he wanted to do something for the heroes of that forgotten era. In 1996, Kline founded the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation to honor black pros who played prior to 1960. Some of the still-living legends he’s contacted date their playing careers as far back as the 1930s.

Kline wants to make sure these men finally get their due — in much the same way that Negro League baseball players have finally begun to get recognition for their talents and sacrifices. Kline led the successful campaign to get former Globetrotter Marques Haynes elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Black Legends has also sponsored two well-attended gatherings of players in Detroit, and plans another there on Feb. 23-24, 2001. Kline also has plans for a TV documentary.

But he says one thing he has yet to accomplish is persuading the NBA to truly recognize the early black legends of the sport. The NBA has contributed several thousand dollars toward the organization’s banquets, but he says the league hasn’t come through with the same kind of accolades and financial help that Major League Baseball has begun to direct toward Negro League veterans. “What we’re trying to do is to get the NBA to own up and acknowledge our contribution,” Kline, 68, says. “At least show some respect. Particularly for those guys who are in their 80s and won’t be around much longer.”

NBA spokesman Chris Brienza acknowledges that the league has been “pretty lax” in the past about recognizing the sport’s rich racial history, but says that began to change with its 50th anniversary celebration in 1997. In 1999 the league held three Black History Month forums at The NBA Store in New York City. The panelists, including black professional trailblazers John Isaacs and Earl Lloyd, talked about early African-American contributions to the game. “We are making efforts to honor our past and our tradition,” Brienza says.

The way many black trailblazers see it, the NBA owes them its life. In the 1940s, when the NBA wasn’t much of a fan draw, the league stayed alive by staging doubleheaders with the Globetrotters. The New York Rens and other barnstormers helped nurture and popularize the game that is now an international, multi-billion dollar industry. Isaacs, who played with the Renaissance from 1936 to 1940, earned $150 a month plus $3 a day meal money after signing with the Rens out of high school. “We enjoyed it and played it as a sport,” Isaacs, now 85, says. Today, pro basketball “is about money.”

The Rens would leave New York for months at a time, traveling thousands of miles and playing every night and twice on Sundays. Sometimes they slept on their bus because they couldn’t find a place to stay. Once, an Indiana restaurant owner put a tall screen around the team’s table to segregate the Rens from other customers. Isaacs walked out. He sat in the bus and made a meal of salami on Ritz crackers.

On the court, the Rens faced hostile crowds, ruthless name calling, and biased referees. Their motto on the road was “Get 10,” meaning that they wanted to come out and grab a quick 10-point lead. “That was the 10 the officials were going to take away from you,” Isaacs recalls. In 1939, the Rens went 112-7 and swept into Chicago and beat a top white pro team, the Oshkosh All-Stars, to win the first ever world championship tournament.

In the 1940s, the Globetrotters took over the Rens’ mantle as the best team in the nation, black or white. The Trotters became known for their on-court clowning, but make no mistake: They could play. They defeated the white national champions, the Minneapolis Lakers, in exhibition games in 1948 and 1949, and their star, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, joined Chuck Cooper, Earl Lloyd, and Hank DeZonie in 1950 as the first African Americans in the NBA.

Before true integration, Marques Haynes says, most Trotters found themselves at a disadvantage in salary negotiations. They had nowhere else to go, so they had to take what Trotters owner Abe Saperstein offered them.

The way Kline sees it, those sorts of hardships make it all the more urgent that somebody makes sure that black legends are repaid for their struggles. He’s started a dire-needs fund to support elderly or down-on-their-luck players, like Ruben Bolen. And now he’s pushing for Isaacs’ election to the Basketball Hall of Fame, along with throwing the foundation’s support behind a mentoring program for middle-school athletes in Detroit.

Kline spent countless hours doing detective work, tracking down nearly 150 former players. Kline says Isaacs, Haynes, and all the rest deserve the limelight, and he’s doing his best to see everybody gets a share. “We played for lots of different teams,” Kline says. “But we’re all really one as it stands now, because we’re trying to help each other.”

For more information about the Black Legends Foundation, call 313-822-8208 or write P.O. Box 02384, Detroit, MI 48202.