The World Needs To Know

By Chad Lucas
Updated: May 23, 2007

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — Claude Johnson thinks Nova Scotia’s annual Black Basketball Tournament is one of the best-kept secrets on this continent.

“I’m not sure the locals know how cool this is,” said Johnson, who was the keynote speaker at the tournament banquet at Casino Nova Scotia. “You should have SLAM Magazine, you should have all these different basketball nuts coming up to check it out every year.

“I think the world needs to know more about this tournament.”

Johnson knows a little bit about unearthing well-kept secrets. The Connecticut entrepreneur has built a business out of his research on the Black Fives — all-black professional basketball teams that played in the early 20th century before integration.

He was working in the NBA’s licensing department in 1996 when the league put out an encyclopedia of basketball to mark its 50th anniversary.

Johnson was surprised that the 800-page book featured just three pages on the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Rens, two of the most prominent all-black teams. He had read Arthur Ashe’s book “A Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African American Athlete,” and knew there were many more squads out there.

But finding them was the hard part.

“I went to the Basketball Hall of Fame, the Library of Congress, the National Archives, all these historical archives and nobody knew anything,” Johnson said.

He unearthed the history of the old leagues by poring through the sports pages of black newspapers on microfilm dating back to the turn of the century.

“I looked at the sports pages week after week, until my eyes were watery,” he said.

Johnson found out that black communities have been playing basketball since 1904, not long after Canadian James Naismith invented the sport in 1891.

Baseball icon Jackie Robinson played on a Black Fives squad, while New York Rens legend John Isaacs is credited with introducing the pick-and-roll — a staple offensive play — into the pro game.

Johnson, who has worked for the NBA, Nike, Phat Farm and Benetton, revived the Black Fives names and images through a clothing line that has been picked up by Nike and Converse.

It has become a million-dollar business capitalizing on the recent retro craze in sportswear, “and I started the whole thing with nothing but a library card,” Johnson said.

But his goal is more than just running a profitable company. Each piece of Black Fives clothing comes with a tag detailing the story of the player and team, and Johnson frequently speaks to groups about the history of the league and his own tale of hard work and success.

He appeared at two Halifax schools last Friday before taking in some tournament games in North Preston.

“I’ve always been taught that if you can do something, you’re obligated to, especially if it helps people,” he said.

Johnson said he sees that potential in the black tournament, to be about more than just sport. The tournament’s board of directors have added a scholarship and a youth program in recent years, and the annual weekend has become as much as a social and cultural gathering as a sporting event.

“I’m impressed with the level of play and the level of organization,” Johnson said. “I really believe that social issues can be affected by sport. My mind has started racing with all the different things that I see — you’ve gotten it to a point where it’s poised for a lot of things.”