"But I get a little tight when I see a kid in Nike Dunks or Adidas [Superstar] shell-toes who doesn't know where they come from or who wore them initially. I mean, when I was 13, I knew who the Harlem Rens were. I knew about that dude from Stanford, Hank Luisetti. I do mind if people wear Wes Unseld and don't know who Wes Unseld was. Mitchell & Ness is a status symbol in the ghetto, which is f—ed up—you got nothing in the bank, no vision for owning a home, and buying throwback jerseys is to your detriment unless you have money to burn. But what I hope happens with the retro phenomenon is that people basically look back and say, Wow. That they learn history."
Claude Johnson can identify the very moment he became a self-described "history stalker"—can point to it with as much precision as Reuben Harley cites that Oprah episode. It was 1996. Johnson was working as a licensor for the NBA, and the league had just published its latest encyclopedia, to celebrate its 50th anniversary. As he leafed through the book's more than 800 pages, Johnson discovered that only three pages and part of a fourth addressed black basketball before the NBA and integration. There was scant mention of all-black teams like the Rens and the "physical culture clubs" in cities around the Northeast that didn't play in a formal league yet settled among themselves the title of "colored basketball world's champion." Johnson, troubled and curious, chased down a copy of Arthur Ashe's standard text on the history of African-American sports, A Hard Road to Glory, and learned more, though not enough to quell what was growing into an obsession.
Soon Johnson dived into microfiche collections at the Library of Congress and Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He visited the archives of black newspapers in New York City, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C. He used genealogical websites to chase down descendants of players and managers. Over the ensuing years, through stints with Nike, Phat Farm and Benetton, he spent vacations, sick days and weekends trying to fill in the blanks. "My wife truly thought I was crazy," he says.
The stories he came upon reeled him further and further in. He read about Brooklyn's Smart Set Athletic Club, whose star player was Lena Home's father, Edwin. He saw today's symbiosis between music and basketball prefigured in dance halls and casino ballrooms where dancing lasted from game's end till dawn. He learned the tale of Cumberland Posey, a centerfielder for the storied Homestead Grays, who was an even better basketball player, first under an assumed name at Duquesne, then for Pittsburgh's Monticello Athletic Association, and who developed a friendship and sandlot basketball rivalry with the city's great white player of the day, a guy named Art Rooney.
In November 1918 Paul Robeson played his last football game for Rutgers, at the Polo Grounds, then walked across the street to the Manhattan Casino, the mecca of early black basketball in New York City, to play for Harlem's St. Christopher Club against its neighborhood rival, the Alpha Physical Culture Club. Today that intersection, at 155th Street and Frederick Douglass Boulevard, is the site of Holcombe Rucker Memorial Park. "It's a hell of a coincidence," Johnson says. "The ghosts of the guys who played at the Casino probably walk over to share stories with the ghosts of Rucker Park."
Johnson ultimately poured his discoveries into an as yet unpublished manuscript that aspires to be the hoops equivalent of Robert Peterson's landmark history of Negro league baseball, Only the Ball Was White. But along the way, given his background in the sportswear business, Johnson couldn't help but daydream. When he had lived in Brooklyn, he had never heard of the Smart Set. "I asked myself, How cool would it be to wear a T-shirt that said Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn? And walk around Brooklyn in it?"
Before he got around to sending his manuscript off to publishers, he caught wind of the retro craze and decided to launch a line of vintage replica apparel. He riddled out colors and details of uniforms from game accounts and the odd photograph, then used computer software to reproduce logos for such teams as the Washington, D.C, 12th Streeters and the Atlantic City Vandals, who played in the 1910s and '20s. He secured from erstwhile Rens star John Isaacs, as well as the descendants of Robeson and Home, the right to use their names. And he attached to each item—the line includes jerseys, cage shirts, caps and casino jackets—a hangtag with a brief history of the team. Since its rollout in September, the authenticity and subtle styling of Black Fives apparel has made it a hit. It also may be the only sportswear line whose website includes a bibliography.
Johnson has slipped product to the usual tastemakers, from LeBron James and Jermaine O'Neal to P. Diddy and Ludacris to John Salley of The Best Damn Sports Show Period and Big Tigger of BET's Rap City. But he has a tweedier audience in mind, too, that's just as hip in its own way. And so Black Fives gear has made its way to the homecoming fashion show at Howard University and into the hands of Princeton professor Cornel West, who's the Oprah of the chin-stroking set.
"I have to be the Big Rube as well as the big bookkeeper, big driver, big stock boy, big salesperson and big p.r. guy," says Johnson, who works XXXXXXXXL days. "It's draining, but I signed up for it. I'm not trying for a slam dunk, like Jay-Z and Mitchell & Ness. I'm just trying to box out and hit my foul shots."
The cage shirts have been a particular hit. In basketball's infancy, games took place in wire-mesh cages and players wore long sleeves to protect themselves from laceration. "There's never been a long-sleeve throwback with cuffs till now," Johnson says. "Retailers constantly complain, 'How can I sell a tank top in basketball season?' And I've had lots tell me that not everyone likes big, loud letters and numbers. They have customers who want something clean and preppy."