Examining Baltimore’s roots as a basketball juggernaut

A Conversation with author and hoops historian Claude Johnson

Published on: June 23, 2022 6:00 AM EDT|Updated on: August 24, 2022 10:46 AM EDT

The Baltimore Mets team photo included: Skippy Gipson, Ditty Watkins, Rap Wheatley, Sugar Cain, Ezar Murdock, Duce Gibson, Babe Jones and Spooky Smith.

Baltimore is indisputably a basketball hotbed. Year after year, the city churns out an impressive array of talent that populates the rosters of major Division I college programs across the country.

A cursory glance across the NBA and WNBA landscape presents a string of names that are familiar to those with an intimate relationship to the local high school scene: Towson Catholic’s Carmelo Anthony, Lake Clifton’s Will “The Thrill” Barton, Archbishop Spalding’s Rudy Gay, Saint Frances’ Damion Lee and Angel McCoughtry, Mount St. Joseph’s Jaylen “Sticks” Smith, and Aberdeen’s Brionna Jones, to simply name a few.

And the pipeline is bursting with the likes of the nimble yet powerful Spalding alum Cam Whitmore, an incoming freshman at Villanova; Angel Reese, the gifted Saint Frances alum who recently transferred from the University of Maryland to LSU for her junior year; and class of 2024 rugged wingman extraordinaire, Bryson Tucker.

Tucker, who was formerly at Mount St. Joseph’s and transferred this summer to IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, is being talked about in glowing terms, with some saying that he’s the best young player to come out of Charm City since Carmelo.

Then there’s the lithe, lanky former Poly standout Kwame “KJ” Evans, who’s the top-ranked power forward in the class of 2023 who now plays at national powerhouse Montverde Academy in Florida, along with his mountainous Montverde teammate Derik Queen, the top-ranked center in the class of 2024 who previously attended Saint Frances.

The 6-foot-9 Evans currently holds scholarship offers from Kentucky, UCLA, Arizona, Auburn, Oregon and Indiana, just to name a few. Meanwhile the 6-foot-8 Queen, who just finished up his sophomore year in high school, is coveted by the likes of Maryland, Georgetown, Alabama, Auburn and Syracuse, among a slew of others.

So how did Baltimore, a city of some 560,000 residents, become such fertile ground for hoops excellence? How does it consistently churn out talent that is equal to, or often surpasses, such densely populated metropolises like New York and Los Angeles?

Some will point to that watershed moment in 1973, on a frigid January afternoon at the Baltimore Civic Center, when the electric Skip “Honey Dip” Wise scorched for 39 points, including a 22-point fourth quarter explosion, leading Dunbar High School to a stunning 85-71 upset over the No. 1-ranked team in the country, Hyattsville’s DeMatha Catholic, which entered the matchup with an astounding 43-game winning streak and future Notre Dame and NBA standout Adrian Dantley.

Local NBA aficionados will excitedly orate about the Baltimore Bullets’ contribution: the aerial pyrotechnics of Gus “Honeycomb” Johnson, the rebounding and passing muscularity of Wes Unseld, and the majestic improvisational inventiveness of Earl “The Pearl” Monroe driving crowds crazy at the Civic Center in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

Others will mention the fierce Dunbar and Calvert Hall rivalry in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when both schools were battling for national and local supremacy, as another seed. A few will go back further, pointing towards the dominant, undefeated Morgan State teams of the mid- to late- 1920s, coached by Charles Drew prior to him becoming a world-renowned physician known for his pioneering research in the preservation of blood plasma and blood transfusions.

Several other folks will reference the incubator system of recreation centers. These separate oases, scattered throughout the city, were where dedicated hope dealers, community change agents and mentors deftly taught the game to burgeoning young talents with a rare passion and love. They helped to mold Baltimore’s unique basketball aesthetic, which can best be described, as former City College High School star and Kansas State guard Kamau Stokes once expressed to me, as “controlled belligerence”: Leon Howard at Lafayette, Anthony “Dudie” Lewis at Cecil-Kirk and Bucky Lee at Oliver, among many others.

To get a deeper perspective, we spoke with Claude Johnson, a hoops historian and the executive director of The Black Fives Foundation.

His new book, “The Black Fives: The Epic Story of Basketball’s Forgotten Era,” delves with a unique precision and narrative force into the history of the pioneering African-Americans who helped to popularize the sport in urban communities nearly five decades prior to the integration of the NBA.

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During your formative years, when did sports begin to speak to you outside of the final score of the games?

In elementary school in Newton, Massachusetts, there was a strong baseball culture. We all collected baseball cards, and there was no better feeling than when you were missing a single player from a team and eventually acquired his card. I’d save the money from my paper route, hop on the T (Boston’s subway system) by myself when I was about 10 years old and take the Green Line over to Fenway. For a few bucks, you could get a cheap ticket, a hot dog and a soda. I’d check out the game and then head on back home.

When did basketball come into the picture?

When I was in high school, I became really interested in the Boston Celtics. I was working as a dishwasher at The Colonial Inn in Concord, Massachusetts in the summer of 1976 when they played the Phoenix Suns in the NBA Finals. We all snuck out of the kitchen and watched the ending of that Game 5 triple-overtime thriller in the lounge area. Also, an elementary schoolmate of mine was a ball boy for the Celtics, and I remember him smugly showing off a pair of green suede Nike Blazers. That sparked this idea in me that, hey, these players are real people because one of them actually gave that kid that pair of sneakers.

The historical narrative in the book jumps off the page. Your fascination and affection for these early players and entrepreneurial businessmen who founded and funded these endeavors is evident from the jump. When did you realize that you had an interest in history?

I was fascinated by history at an early age, specifically Egyptian history, the pyramids and King Tut. I went to the library a lot and one librarian actually told me that I wasn’t allowed to read certain books because they were too advanced for me. I told her, “You’re wrong!” And I read them anyway.

Let’s fast forward, after bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering at Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, respectively, and working in Corporate America at IBM and American Express, you find yourself employed as the director of business operations for the NBA. And that’s where this passion for the hidden history of Black basketball begins to germinate, right?

Yes. The league was celebrating its 50th anniversary when I was there in 1996 and they produced an 800-page commemorative book. I was disheartened that they only briefly made mention of the Black pioneers and pro teams that were playing at an extremely high level, going back to the early 1900s, decades before the league integrated.

What did you do after your interest was piqued?

I read Arthur Ashe’s book, “A Hard Road to Glory,” and became fascinated with the story of The Smart Set Athletic Club, the first fully independent African-American basketball team, which was founded in Brooklyn, New York in 1906. I knew that there were so many stories about that pre-integration era that had yet to be told.

If you go to an NBA game, the marriage of music and entertainment is woven into the fabric of the experience. But this relationship was established long ago by some of these pioneering Black teams and businessmen, correct?

Yes. In the early 1900s, the phonograph and radio became available on a large scale to consumers for the first time. Ragtime, an original African American art form, along with jazz and the blues, created a dance craze. Dance halls and ballrooms got built, and enterprising promoters, looking to pack the house, would have bands and orchestras perform before the games started, and there’d be a big dance party afterwards. So these games went beyond mere sporting contests; they became meaningful social events where people showed up dressed in their Sunday finest.

Now let’s bring it on home to Baltimore, thinking about those initial seeds that were planted that helped to form the city’s unique basketball aesthetic. The game is founded in 1891 at the YMCA International Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. How does it get here?

The key figure is a man by the name of Edwin Bancroft Henderson, E.B., who became known as “The Father of Black Basketball.” He learned this new sport while studying at the Summer School for Physical Education at Harvard in 1904. In Washington, D.C., he was a physical education teacher. He’s super important because he introduced and taught the game at all of the Black schools there, and the gospel of basketball soon spread to the neighboring cities of Baltimore and Philadelphia.

Baltimore was also one of the first cities with an African American YMCA branch. Seeing that basketball was founded at the Y and its affiliation with Christianity, I imagine that played a role as well.

Yes, E.B. introduced the game to the young men at the 12th Street YMCA, D.C.’s African American Y, and it wasn’t long before they were playing games against what was then known as The Baltimore Colored YMCA. The YMCAs that had their own gymnasiums and facilities played a very big role in the growth of the game.

And shortly thereafter, E.B., his colleague Ralph Cook at the Baltimore Colored High School, and other teachers and administrators formed a groundbreaking league that helped the game flourish in this area. Can you expound on that a little bit?

In 1906, E.B., Ralph Cook and a small group of other Black physical education teachers in the area got together to form the ISAA, The Interscholastic Athletic Association of Middle Atlantic States. D.C. and Baltimore had “colored high schools,” but there weren’t enough of them. So under that ISAA umbrella, it wasn’t just high schools. There were other amateur squads, YMCAs, club teams all playing against one another on a single circuit. That’s how the Baltimore Colored High School wound up barnstorming and playing against teams from New York to D.C. So it’s no wonder why Baltimore, D.C. and New York became important in the development of the game because those cities were connected very early on.

They say all rappers today want to be ballers, and all ballers want to be rappers. But few, if any, could ever be as slick as Cab Calloway who, before becoming an iconic legend in the genres of jazz, swing, blues and Big Band, played pro ball for the Baltimore Athenians in the Negro Professional Basketball League during his senior year at Frederick Douglass High School in 1925. There’s that link between basketball and music again.

Cab Calloway wasn’t the only one. There was a lot of overlap. Duke Ellington played for the 12th Street YMCA. Teams would have their own orchestras. For example, Fletcher Henderson, the Big Band jazz pianist and bandleader, would play with the house band for the Harlem Rens at the Renaissance Ballroom. And the musicians and players on the team often traveled and hung out together.

So those early days in Baltimore played a central role in the essence of the game we see today.

If you look at a basic timeline, you have Baltimore’s Colored High School and YMCA, which played a major role in the groundbreaking ISAA, that led to the success stories of the pro teams like the Athenians and those great Morgan State teams in the ‘20s. All of that led to the further growth and development of the game in the city, which paved the way for the Bullets, who paved the way for the Wizards.