Nostalgia for a basketball league that never was

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Raptor Eric Williams shows off a jacket packed with logos from a series of basketball teams from what he calls "Black League Basketball."

Nostalgia for a basketball league that never was

Raptor pitches `retro' sportswear line

But Negro Basketball League a myth

Nov. 11, 2005. 05:17 AM



Eric Williams was showing off a beautiful leather jacket in the Raptors' dressing room at the Air Canada Centre on Monday, a jacket packed with colourful logos from a series of basketball teams, including the Newark Eagles, Harlem Knights, Baltimore Crabs, West Philly Dancers and Cleveland Ebonies, the latter complete with a nattily attired fellow in a 1920's-style zoot suit.

His company, Eric Williams Apparel, was hoping to launch a line of merchandise celebrating what he called "Black League Basketball," he explained, adding the jacket was a prototype, something to bring the league, which he said existed from 1920-40, into the public eye.

"We have to understand where we came from," he said.

But there's little to understand here, except, maybe, that money trumps history. The league and teams, say several basketball historians, never existed.

"Why make up something about cultural history and pawn it off as that?" asks Claude Johnson, a former NBA employee who works for a company, Black Fives, that makes memorabilia of its own.

"It's truly an affront to someone who actually had to go to the back of the diner to eat," adds Johnson, a historian of black baseball who says he belongs to the North American Society of Sport History and the Association of Professional Basketball Researchers.

Matt Zeysing, a historian at the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., has studied black sports history in the U.S., and he's equally certain.

"We did a big exhibition four or five years ago on basketball and integration and we've never come across that league," Zeysing told the Star.

"We've done a lot of research on black basketball history and we haven't heard of it.

"That doesn't mean it doesn't exist," he ventures, but when asked if he thinks he would've heard of a league that's said to have operated for 20 years in some of the largest cities in the U.S., he's cautiously positive.

"I would think so," Zeysing responds.

Basketball historian Susan Rayl went further.

"There's never been a black African-American or Negro Basketball League," she said. "They never existed."

Asked if he wants to sell merchandise that's not real, Williams replied: "Naw, I mean, I want to do the research. But it's urban wear. I mean, I played in a lot of leagues myself and they might not have been sanctioned around the world, but at the same time people amongst the group that was playing basketball who couldn't get in or break ground anywhere else might have had a league like that.

"Maybe it was a summer league or something," Williams adds.

And then it's down to the bottom line.

"These logos had to come from somewhere," Williams says. "Whether there was a league or not those logos ... that's still nice to represent the 'hood or whatever it was. Those were all the inner cities. (Whether it was) an interim league or a professional league, those leagues and those logos, to me they sound like they exist. The story sounds good to me so I'm rolling with it."

After all, it's about the clothes.

"The clothes are what's nice," he says. "But we'll do the research. But at the same time it's fun for me, it's a clothing line for me."

But it's more than clothing for lovers of the game ... and history.

The first black player to play in an NBA game was Earl Lloyd, who got into a game for the Washington Capitols in 1950. Lloyd was one of a handful of African-American athletes who played in the league that year.

Rayl, an associate professor of sport history at State University of New York-Cortland, did her PhD at Penn State on the all-black New York Rens touring team and has done extensive research on early 20th-century black basketball.

"Somebody might have put together a team like one of those for a night to play the Rens or a team in the NBL (National Basketball League). They'd get guys together and play for money and divide the profits. But an organized league? No."

Rayl said the only surviving member of the New York Rens, John Isaacs of New York City, just turned 90.

"We had 200 or 300 people at his birthday party the other day," she said.

"This (selling merchandise from a league that didn't exist) in my opinion negates what the real people did and is almost a slap in the face."

Johnson, who said he sells memorabilia ? but only from proven, historic clubs such as the Rens ? said he'd heard a company in the U.S. was manufacturing T-shirts with the same teams Williams was showing on his jacket.

A shirt he was given carries a tag showing it was made by a company called B.A.T. WEAR. The shirt reads, "Negro Basketball League, 1920-1939. They played only for the love of the game."

Johnson said the shirts come with a tag that describes the history of the Negro Basketball League and includes descriptions of such players as James "Windmill" Jones and Lenny "Three Fingers" Willis, described as "the league's best ball handler and (who) was the inventor of the no-look pass."

&qThere was a player named Willis, but this sounds like a total concoction to me," said Rayl. &qIt's really sad. Really sad."

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