Isiah Thomas. Dwyane Wade. Derrick Rose. Some of the NBA’s greatest players of all time call Chicago home. What is it about the Windy City that pairs so well with hardwood courts and Spalding? 

Well, once upon a time during the era of segregation, early Black basketball thrived in what is known as the Black Fives era; a period of amateur, semi-professional and professional basketball between 1904 and 1946 before the launch and integration of the NBA.

Black Fives teams included the New York Renaissance, the Monticello Athletic Association of Pittsburgh, and even mighty Howard University — winners of the 1910-1911 championship, as determined by leading Black sports writers of the day. These journalists helped cohere an emerging game which, unlike the NBA today, cannot be pinned down to a unified association, location or venue. 

In Chicago, a few Black Fives teams and names stand out, including the Savoy Big Five and Harlem Clowns. 

“Prior to 1913, there really were no Black-controlled venues until the Wabash Avenue YMCA was built because of a matching grant from Julius Rosenwald,” explains Claude Johnson, a Stanford University-trained engineer and long-time marketing executive.

Exterior view of the Wabash Street YMCA building in the Bronzeville neigbhorhood of Chicago, IL, 1993. The facility was an important social center for African Americans who moved to Chicago during the Great Migration. (Photo by The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images)

Rosenwald, a prominent Jewish philanthropist and cofounder of Sears and Roebuck, deeply believed in social services and education. Inspired by Booker T. Washington, he helped launch dozens of YMCAs in Black neighborhoods. The five-story Wabash Avenue YMCA is where Carter G. Woodson proposed the idea of “Negro History Week,” a precursor to Black History Month. 

“And when they opened this [Wabash Avenue YMCA] up, it had a really nice gymnasium in there that was used for basketball and suddenly Black basketball in Chicago got on the map,” Johnson adds.

Johnson now dedicates the bulk of his time to running the Black Fives Foundation to honor the pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball. This past spring, the nonprofit entered into a multi-year partnership with Puma, and Johnson himself has a book coming out about the Fives in 2022.

Part of his goal is to “make history now.” A few years ago, then-Chicago Bulls star Taj Gibson and visual artist Swopes joined rising local ballplayers to create a short video that reflects on the landmark Wabash Avenue YMCA and the Black Fives history in Chicago.

One prominent Chicago basketball team from the Black Fives era is the Savoy Big Five. They took down all-Black teams including Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, Wilberforce University and the Loendi Big Five of Pittsburgh. But the Savoy Big Five are also a good example of the fusion between athletic play and other forms of entertainment, such as dance and Jazz that were part of these bonafide cultural events. 

In 1927, Associated Ballrooms, Inc., a builder of a series of behemoth ballrooms in Harlem and elsewhere, signed a 30-year, $1 million lease of an entire South Side Chicago city block to build the Savoy Ballroom, according to Johnson. The likes of Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald were featured acts.

The cultural venue later became the ball team’s home court in 1928. 

The mighty Savoy, home of sports and entertainment, stood until the early 1970s, and was located on South Parkway Boulevard (now Martin Luther King Drive) at 47th Street. The venue was large enough to accommodate 7,500 dancers. And the Savoy Big Five’s first manager was Black nightclub promoter Dick “Baby Face” Hudson. He previously coached and managed an all-Black Chicago-based team named the Giles Post American Legion Five, and ended up renaming that team to the Savoy Big Five, after its ballroom sponsor. 

Later, a faction of the Savoy Big Five became the Harlem Globetrotters when North Side Jewish businessman Abe Saperstein joined the team in the late 1920s. Some of these Trotters were born out of a squad of talented athletes from Bronzeville’s Wendell Phillips High School, with one of these stars being Al “Runt” Pullins, a 5 foot 8 speedster and dead-eye shooter who refined his skills at the Wabash Y.

His daughter Carol Pullins McNeal, and granddaughter Andria McNeal-Smith, continue to keep Pullins’ legacy alive and, along with Johnson, have advocated for his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. 

A photograph of Al “Runt” Pullins from his daughter Carol Pullins McNeal.

To date, only 12 players from the Black Fives have been posthumously inducted. Pullins is not yet one of them.

Born in Louisiana, Pullins followed the common northward trajectory of the Great Migration to Chicago when he was six years old. Though away from the Jim Crow South, spaces west of State Street on Chicago’s South Side were verboten. 

“There were boundaries of course, but for them I think it was a full experience and they were able to test their skills. As young men, all they wanted to do is play,” McNeal says, adding that the Pullins family was able to become homeowners and step into the middle class. 

As captain of Wendell Phillips High School’s basketball team, Pullins set a Chicago high school single-season scoring record that stood until the late 1940s and led his school as the first Black team to win a citywide championship in 1928. Later, consistent with other Black Fives figures, Pullins stepped into the role of entrepreneur and founded the Chicago-based Harlem Clowns in 1934, the second-oldest traveling team in the country after the Globetrotters.

The Harlem Clowns took their talents far beyond Chicago, barnstorming across the country and eventually as far and wide as Canada and Japan. In those early days, Pullins’ mother and aunt loaned him their car and money so that he could be on the move with the Clowns. McNeal-Smith describes it as an “Akeelah and the Bee” family affair.

On the road navigating with and without the Green Book, the Chicago-based Harlem Clowns arrived in sleepy towns in the Midwest, Jim Crow South, and elsewhere where they also faced and thrived against all-white competition. But the all-Black squad couldn’t just go in and wallop these teams — unwise both for business and because it might trigger something such as a race riot.

“What would happen is that you would go into a small town and play predominantly-white teams,  but you could not run up the score. Yes you were there for entertainment. But you also needed to leave with your safety intact,” McNeal-Smith explains.

Today, some might see the Harlem Clowns and Harlem Globetrotters-type play as flirting with buffoonery at times, but McNeal-Smith aims to reframe the narrative, speaking to the truly delicate tightrope that these Black athletes had to walk. 

Ultimately, McNeal-Smith calls the Clowns’ play a true survival tactic that combined adept footwork, athleticism and skill — another example of the complicated strategies Black people have used to survive and thrive throughout American history.

“These are the things we’re looking to challenge as we set the record straight,” she adds. 

Pullins traveled the world thanks to his hooping ability on the court and business acumen off of it. His career with the Clowns lasted until the 1970s.

“Who knew that the real OGs had already won rings in a league of their own,” asks Chicago-bred rapper Lil Bibby, as he narrated the words of poet Joekenneth Museau in that Wabash Y short video released a few years ago. 

Ultimately, the Black Fives is another example of Black excellence on the court, and leadership and activism off of it. So when detractors tell current NBA players to stick to hoops, the legacy of the Black Fives in Chicago and beyond reminds us that this can never be the case.

is a freelance contributor for The TRiiBE. He's also a staff writer for Inside Philanthropy and an approved Rotten Tomatoes critic. He’s also written for outlets CBS News, Newsweek, PBS, Mic, and The Rumpus, and blogs about film, television, and the majestic NBA on his own website,