Basketball’s Roots: An Excerpt

The inaugural basketball team of the Alpha Physical Culture Club.
©Black Fives, Inc

John H. Johnson, Columbia University star, 1920.
©Black Fives, Inc

By 1908 the Alpha Physical Culture Club was finally ready with its own basketball team, which replaced the Marathon Athletic Club of Brooklyn in the Olympian League. Responsibility for managing the new squad, which came to be known as the “Alpha Big Five,” was given to Archibald “Archie” Thomas, a native of the British West Indies. Its founding roster included Thomas himself, who was also the team’s captain and one of its star players, as well as the earnest and forward-thinking Jamaican-born brothers Gerald, Conrad, and Clifton Norman, who had founded the Alpha P.C.C. in 1904, and who were very good athletes in their own right.

When these men began playing basketball, they had powerful motivations. First, it was fun — everyone was talking about the relatively new sport. Spectators for both home and visiting squads would cheer with as much or more team spirit as could be found during college games, and with growing interest in the individual players. “The Alphas, stocky and good looking, took the court early in the evening,” the New York Age reported in 1909.  By 1910, the Alpha P.C.C. basketball team was drawing up to 1,200 onlookers per game.

Naturally, fans sometimes became over-enthusiastic. “Because they favored different teams they could not refrain from indulging in a fight, temporarily stopping the game,” wrote New York Age sporting page editor Lester Walton in perhaps the earliest documentation of a courtside brawl. It happened during a particularly heated Alpha Big Five victory over the St. Christopher Club in 1911.

Of concern to Walton was the fact that “several young ladies were crushed in the melee.” The role he played in black hoops was somewhat like that of a “commissioner” of the game, and therefore Walton saw it fit to remind the public, “the class of people that supports basketball games played between our colored clubs does not attend to see a prize fight, and young men of education and refinement should not so forget as to make themselves obnoxious.”

This was not an isolated incidence of leadership and diplomacy for Walton, who was a pioneer in journalism as the first full time sports editor of African descent in history, and who would eventually become the United States’ ambassador for Liberia.

Secondly, basketball was becoming known as a character-building sport, which meant that fans began seeing its players as role models and heroes. “In a game that is so clearly out in the open as is basket-ball, where every move is visible to the spectator and to his team-mates, the player lacking in courage would be immediately conspicuous,” wrote E.D. Angell in his book, Basket Ball for Coach, Player and Spectator, published by Wilson Sporting Goods in 1918. “So basket-ball brings out those qualities that we recognize as manly and worth-while in the development of the American boy.” As an enhancement to this notion, many of the Alpha Big Five’s spectators were members of the opposite sex, a result that was encouraged and reinforced through social events staged by the organization. These were not only fun but also strategic, which explains why Walton was so concerned about the “melee.” Co-ed events included post-game ladies night receptions at the Alpha P.C.C. clubhouse to toast the team and its fans. “The rooms were handsomely decorated,” it was reported of one such event, “and the many guests present were more than pleased at the preparations made for their entertainment.”

Thirdly, the club raised considerable sums of money from its basketball games, especially those played at the spacious Manhattan Casino in Harlem, which held up to 6,000 spectators. The typical general admission was 50 cents, with boxes seating up to eight persons at floor level or in the balcony available for $2.00 — ticket prices included the hatcheck fee.

Finally, the Alpha P.C.C. saw its basketball team as representing not only the organization and its West Indian followers, but also the entire black race. So they were striving to be “legit” in every way. This view encompassed everything from the club’s facilities to the team’s uniforms; from the social standing of its membership to the team’s competitiveness; and from the reach of the club’s community efforts to the team’s sportsmanship. Even ethical considerations had to be upheld. “As soon as men are allowed to jump from one team to another to strengthen weak places and to satisfy an unscrupulous manager, so soon will the game degenerate,” complained Alpha P.C.C. club president Gerald Norman, after a game in which an opponent tried substituting a player not on its roster. “We may expect, if such conduct be permitted,” he continued, “that sooner or later, instead of games being played on their merits the public will find themselves witnessing prearranged contests, which would soon kill the desire for clean athletics and make it most undesirable.”

Since they felt that the club’s success was also the race’s success, the bigger picture was always kept in mind. When the Alpha Big Five played basketball it was about much more than just the game — it was about community building and racial self-esteem. The young club — as well as athletic competition in general and the game itself — began to be seen as providing African-Americans not only with an easily understood model for how to face challenges, but also with a source of inspiration and pride.

In keeping with the staging of meaningful social events in connection with African American basketball games, the Alpha P.C.C. also formed a female basketball team around 1910 called the New York Girls. The team was meant to be the “sister” counterpart to the men of the Alpha Big Five. They were one of America’s first all-black women’s hoop squads and added to the Alpha P.C.C.’s growing popularity. Conrad Norman managed and coached the Girls, who were as attractive as they were talented. “They played basket ball hard and fast,” Smart Set Athletic Club manager Robert Lattimore wrote in 1911, “yet always retained their sweet womanliness and native dignity.”

Conrad soon developed a romantic interest in one of the Girls, a fellow schoolteacher named Dora Cole, who played center.  She was “a brainy player and the best shot of all the players around New York and New Jersey.” By then, Conrad was nationally famous among African-Americans as a leading figure in athletics, but Dora knew a good pioneer when she saw one. Her brother was the internationally renowned actor and composer Bob Cole, Jr., who, along with James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson, used his popularity and success to force the entertainment industry into dropping all forms of its racially insulting language and behavior — like so-called “coon” songs — which previously had been in universal demanded by white audiences. So it wasn’t long before Conrad and Dora paired up, and they were married in 1914.

The marriage didn’t last very long. Several years later, Conrad remarried and, with his second wife Kathleen, had six children. One of them, Vincent Norman, was the father of Kevin Norman, the Hamptons-based personal trainer. Asked if he was destined for his eventual livelihood in physical fitness, Kevin was matter-of-fact about it. “The apple didn’t fall far from the tree — you just pass health on to your kids,” he says. This was confirmed by the fact that his father was a varsity wrestler at City College of New York, following the family tradition of earning degrees from that school while being active in its athletic programs.

The formation of the Alpha Big Five basketball team in 1908 meant that two of New York City’s three original powerhouse all-black basketball teams — namely, the Alphas and the St. C.’s, not counting the temporary Marathon club — had been organized and were operated by first-generation Caribbean immigrants. This inspired similar efforts within the West Indian community, like the creation of the St. Cyprian Athletic Club. Also formed in 1908, this organization was modeled after the St. Christopher Club in that it was the sports arm of the newly established St. Cyprian Episcopal Church.

St. Cyprian Church stood in Manhattan’s San Juan Hill section — the city’s second-largest black enclave, located where Lincoln Center is today. A man named John W. Johnson was the pastor of this church’s predominantly working-class Caribbean congregation. The St. Cyprian A.C. was unique because it had a playground as well as a small gymnasium that was part of the church’s parish house. Though small, their gym was “the best possessed by any of the New York or New Jersey clubs,” according to the Smart Set’s Lattimore. This allowed the church to form a youth basketball team known as the “Speed Boys,” which won several New York area championship titles during the 1910s. The team featured the pastor’s son, John H. Johnson, who in 1920 would become the first African-American player on Columbia University’s varsity basketball team.

The younger Johnson would be ordained in 1923 and assist his father at St. Cyprian Church for several years, before becoming the immensely popular pastor of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Harlem. While he was there during the 1910s, the athletic facility at St. Cyprian became a well-known social center for the children of foreign-born as well as American-born blacks.  It also helped spread the “gospel” of basketball further among African-Americans, particularly among West Indians.

One such “convert” to basketball was a St. Kitts native named Robert “Bob” Douglas. Douglas, a sturdy athlete who stood about 5-feet 9-inches tall, formed the multi-sport Spartan Field Club in 1908, a year after he immigrated to New York City. The Spartan F.C., which drew on the popularity of cricket among West Indians, also formed teams in soccer, boxing, football, track, and eventually basketball. When the club’s Spartan “Braves” hoops team was officially introduced in 1915, Douglas himself would be in the lineup as a guard.

Moreover, his outlook and willingness to learn allowed Douglas to rise quickly in stature as a team operator among his West Indian basketball peers. Meanwhile, his Spartan Braves were soon considered to be in the highest ranks of local amateur African-American teams.

Although other all-black New York City area basketball teams were organized and became relatively successful during the 1910s, the three Caribbean-controlled clubs — the Alphas, the St. Christophers, and the Spartans — stood apart. The popularity of hoops among African Americans there grew — and so did the influence of West Indians in the sport — as these organizations expanded their schedules, their attendance, and their incomes through promotion, publicity, and outright talent. TC mark

image – Murray State/All photos courtesy of Black Fives, Inc.

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