Jay-Z’s co-ownership of the Brooklyn Nets reminds us of the Smart Set Athletic Club — America’s first all-black basketball team — whose players lived a short stroll away from the Marcy Housing Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant where he grew up.
Did you hear that Jay-Z has gone public this week in announcing his preference for the name of the new N.B.A. franchise in Brooklyn, formerly known as the New Jersey Nets? He likes the name “Brooklyn Nets.” His announcement came at a media event staged at the Barclay Center, which will be the team’s new home. Jay-Z, a co-owner of the team, is originally from Brooklyn and also announced that he would like to stage some concerts at the opening of the arena.
Video clip of Jay-Z speaking at the Barclay Center in Brooklyn.
I’m not sure how settled they are on the team name. But in case Jay-Z and the other owners change their minds about it, here is a suggestion.
How about a name that honors the historically important role that Brooklyn’s black basketball pioneers played in the development of the game among African Americans at the turn of the last century?
In 1907, Brooklyn’s own Smart Set Athletic Club formed the very first all-black basketball team. It was known simply as “the Smart Set,” but eventually earned a more ominous nickname: “The Grave Diggers.”
The Smart Set was one of the founding teams of the very first all-black independent basketball association, the Olympian Athletic League, formed in 1908. The team won the first two league titles as well as the consensus “Colored Basketball World’s Championship” twice.
Smart Set team operations were handled on a voluntary basis by its members, led by George Lattimore, who was an officer in the New York Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. and was employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
“Lattimore and his Smart Set fellows led the fight to get colored athletes recognized by the A.A.U.,” wrote Baltimore Afro-American sports reporter Leon Hardwick in a 1937 interview of Lattimore. “Prior to that time, colored star athletes in track and field, as well as basketball, were almost unheard of,” Lattimore explained. “When we first applied for membership, we were flatly refused.”
Lattimore would later manage the seminal group of musicians known as the Southern Syncopated Orchestra, an African American ensemble led by legendary composer and conductor Will Marion Cook, and which also included legendary cornet player Sidney Bechet, perhaps the most important of early jazz soloists. When he brought the group to London in 1920 for performances at Royal Albert Hall and Buckingham Palace, it was the first time a black orchestra had been booked for shows in Europe. Bechet later maintained that this tour was the highlight of his life. Lattimore subsequently managed that orchestra’s famous and pioneering spin-off group, the Jazz Kings, and would remain in Europe for almost 17 years, maintaining offices in London and Paris, where he booked tours for African American talent and became an “international impresario.”
Tracing the ancestral lineage of Jay-Z’s musical art and his global appeal back to its seminal jazz origins and the groundbreaking work of Smart Set pioneer George Lattimore is obvious.
Just as obvious is the tracing of the ancestral lineage of the success of the N.B.A. and its players back to the pioneering Smart Set Athletic Club and its basketball team, the Grave Diggers.
At the Barclay Center media event, Jay-Z stood at the podium saying, “Without Brooklyn, I wouldn’t be standing here right now.” That is noble and magnanimous, no doubt. But it is only partially true — Jay-Z could have said more accurately that without Brooklyn’s all-black Smart Set Athletic Club and its basketball team, he wouldn’t be standing there.
“Those who are today applauding the success of our athletes must not forget those who struggled heroically to make the way smoother,” wrote Amsterdam News sports columnist Romeo Dougherty of Lattimore way back in 1935.
There is another not-so-obvious reason why Jay-Z could really appreciate the Smart Set Athletic Club. Its members were from his ‘hood. “The real ‘hood, not the rap ‘hood,” as he would say — namely, the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn. Their homes were within a short stroll of the Marcy Housing Projects where Jay-Z grew up. At the time, the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood was predominantly white.
The Smart Set organization catered to Brooklyn’s affluent black social elite — they were of old money, with ancestry whose United States citizenship predated the Civil War. This was also true of the players on its basketball team, which featured Lena Horne’s father, Edwin “Teddy” Horne, as one of its stars. Another star was Hudson “Huddy” Oliver, who would go on to win four Colored World Basketball Championships, was the best African-American player before 1910, and should be considered for enshrinement in the Basketball Hall of Fame — he became a prominent surgeon in Harlem after attending Howard University’s Medical School.
Back then, only the most affluent of New York City’s blacks lived in Brooklyn. “As soon as negro men amass a comfortable fortune they move from this city across the East River,” reported the New York Times in 1895. “It will be news to many white persons to learn that many negro men own and occupy brownstone dwellings in fashionable neighborhoods, employ white servants, and ride in their own carriages behind horses driven by liveried coachmen.” This was not unlike the style of Jay-Z, who arrived at the Barclay Center press conference in a black Maybach. “Some not only own the houses they live in, but also houses tenanted by rich white families, and there are negro men in New York whose wealth is well along toward the million-dollar mark,” the Times continued.
The name of the Smart Set Athletic Club resonated throughout New York City and beyond for decades, and they pioneered several basketball innovations:
- They formed the first formally organized and independent African American basketball team:
- They won the first two Colored Basketball World’s Championships.
- They staged indoor tennis-basketball doubleheaders.
- They held multi-sport athletic carnivals.
- They played in the first inter-city basketball game between two African American teams.
- And more!
OK, the name “Grave Diggers” might not go over very well. But, I would like to suggest that the new owners of the Brooklyn Nets — Jay-Z included — consider keeping the name of the Smart Set Athletic Club in mind, perhaps for a special commemorative “throwback” jersey night when Nets players could wear the Smart Set’s retro uniforms during a game. Maybe during Black History Month, or maybe beyond.
The team name and logos are available and in use — they’ve been licensed by Nike in the past, for a collection of retro footwear and apparel.
And, of course, Major League Baseball does this all the time, with the Negro Leagues — for example, the Pittsburgh Pirates sometimes wear the old Homestead Grays uniform. So this kind of a move wouldn’t be unusual.
It’s just a suggestion.
This article contains portions of original never-before-published research that was conducted by Claude Johnson and will be included in his forthcoming book, An Introduction To The Black Fives Era: African American Basketball, 1904-1950.