DETROIT, MI.– John Kline hadn't thought about Ruben Bolen in decades. Back in the1950s, slots in the NBA had been precious for black ballplayers –one or two per team and that was it. Instead Kline and Bolen traveled the world together as Harlem Globetrotters. DETROIT, MI.– John Kline hadn't thought about Ruben Bolen in decades. Back in the1950s, slots in the NBA had been precious for black ballplayers –one or two per team and that was it. Instead Kline and Bolen traveled the world together as Harlem Globetrotters. When things got tough, Kline depended on Bolen to back him up.
Then one day in 1995, Kline read a painful newspaper item: Ruben Bolen was dead. Bolen, 61, had died homeless, stabbed to death in a parking lot in San Francisco. It hurt Kline, and it made him think: What was happening to guys like Bolen, talented black men who'd played the pro game when it was rough and tumble . . . and racist?
Most of them earned little playing for the Globetrotters, the New York Renaissance, the Washington Bears, and other barnstorming squads that endured endless road trips and unyielding Jim Crow laws. Even those who made the NBA after integration began in 1950 were forced to be role players, concentrating on rebounding and defense. Black pros didn't get a chance to showcase their talents in the league until the arrival of Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain.
Kline, who worked as a school administrator in Detroit after his playing days, decided he wanted to do something for the heroes of that forgotten era. In 1996, Kline founded the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation to honor black pros who played prior to 1960. Some of the still-living legends he's contacted date their playing careers as far back as the 1930s.
Kline wants to make sure these men finally get their due — in much the same way that Negro League baseball players have finally begun to get recognition for their talents and sacrifices. Kline led the successful campaign to get former Globetrotter Marques Haynes elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame. Black Legends has also sponsored two well-attended gatherings of players in Detroit, and plans another there on Feb. 23-24, 2001. Kline also has plans for a TV documentary.
But he says one thing he has yet to accomplish is persuading the NBA to truly recognize the early black legends of the sport. The NBA has contributed several thousand dollars toward the organization's banquets, but he says the league hasn't come through with the same kind of accolades and financial help that Major League Baseball has begun to direct toward Negro League veterans. "What we're trying to do is to get the NBA to own up and acknowledge our contribution," Kline, 68, says. "At least show some respect. Particularly for those guys who are in their 80s and won't be around much longer."
NBA spokesman Chris Brienza acknowledges that the league has been "pretty lax" in the past about recognizing the sport's rich racial history, but says that began to change with its 50th anniversary celebration in 1997. In 1999 the league held three Black History Month forums at The NBA Store in New York City. The panelists, including black professional trailblazers John Isaacs and Earl Lloyd, talked about early African-American contributions to the game. "We are making efforts to honor our past and our tradition," Brienza says.
The way many black trailblazers see it, the NBA owes them its life. In the 1940s, when the NBA wasn't much of a fan draw, the league stayed alive by staging doubleheaders with the Globetrotters. The New York Rens and other barnstormers helped nurture and popularize the game that is now an international, multi-billion dollar industry. Isaacs, who played with the Renaissance from 1936 to 1940, earned $150 a month plus $3 a day meal money after signing with the Rens out of high school. "We enjoyed it and played it as a sport," Isaacs, now 85, says. Today, pro basketball "is about money."
The Rens would leave New York for months at a time, traveling thousands of mile