The NBA Finals are in full swing, and after the Golden State Warriors dominated the first two games of the series, many are wondering if the Cleveland Cavaliers can mount a comeback. Fans on both sides are taking shots at the other. Cavs diehards bemoan Steph Curry’s reliance on the three-point shot, while Warriors fanatics question LeBron James’ ability to rally his squad. As the trash talk, comical memes, and debate rages on, echoing in the annals of history are other more startling words:
“My high school and college used me. The pros sold me. I was a basketball slave.” – Andy Johnson
In a time when basketball players like James and Curry garner million-dollar endorsement deals, magazine covers, and primetime coverage of their every move, the words of Andy Johnson, a former forward for the Philadelphia Warriors (now Golden State) and star of the Original Harlem Globetrotters, may seem shocking for those who do not know the history of professional basketball. But Johnson’s words and experiences are more than ancient history; they are a deeply resonating whisper in the noise created by lucrative contracts, advertising deals, and reality television shows.
Without a doubt, the treatment and perception of professional Black ballplayers has certainly come a long way. But the residue of racism has not been totally washed away from the game.
The Fate of Andy Johnson
It’s almost better to start Andy Johnson’s story from the end: with an eager son’s efforts to help his father reclaim his NBA pension. In the mid 1990s, Mark Johnson was stunned to receive a denial letter from the NBA when he helped his father apply for retirement benefits. While the NBA rakes in billions each year, there are three different pension types for former NBA players—pre-1965 players, post-1965 players, and a separate agreement for players today.
At the time he applied for his pension in the 1990s, athletes like Johnson, who played in the NBA before 1965, only received $100 a month for every year they played in the league (the number has increased over time, the last increase came in 2007). This is roughly .00025% of the current average player’s $400,000 today. It’s also important to note that the average career span of a NBA player before 1965 was only 2 to 4 years, and for Black players that number was even less because they were initially only given one year contracts. In spite of their talent, Black players were not guaranteed a spot on a team’s roster; they had to fight for their spot each year. Because of this flawed, often racist, system, Johnson was initially denied his NBA pension because of a bogus contractual issue, which ended up only highlighting the ways in which he—and other Black players—was devalued as a professional athlete.
Johnson’s road to the NBA was a rocky one. After being born into a sharecropping family in Louisiana and later moving to North Hollywood, California with his older sister who worked as a maid to several celebrities, Johnson became a star in his own right. He played ball for North Hollywood High in the late 1940s and became one of the best basketball players in the city. Unfortunately, that early success came at a cost neither he nor his family could have expected. Johnson was rarely required to attend classes and, in many ways, became the school’s basketball mascot. Even the local newspapers began calling him “The Negro Ace,” “The Colored Flash” and “The Negro Hoopster.” They viewed Johnson not as a student athlete, but instead as a source of entertainment.
“The minute they found out that I could make them money, they would not teach me. They wanted me to put all of my mind into basketball.” – Andy Johnson.
This kind of exploitation would follow Johnson throughout his career. The University of Portland recruited him at sixteen, and instead of spending his senior year of high school preparing for graduation, Johnson was plucked out in the 11th grade and brought to the university to play—without having received a high school diploma. While not confirmed, Johnson’s family believes there was a financial transaction between the coaches and administration at North Hollywood High School and the coaches and administration of the University of Portland. Whatever occurred, it was a deal of a lifetime for the college, but not Johnson.
In 2000, Johnson acquired his college transcript from Portland and the document clearly showed that he did not graduate from high school prior to entering college. To make matters worse, Johnson adamantly denied ever attending 90 percent of the classes listed on his college record. In fact, when reviewing the transcript one can clearly see how the University of Portland kept him in school by erasing grades and dropping courses with teachers who would not “play along” and give Johnson passing grades in exchange for no work.
Johnson’s talent as a player continued to be a bargaining chip for the white-led organizations that used him. In his junior year at Portland, and to the dismay of the college, Johnson joined the legendary Harlem Globetrotters. According to Johnson, Portland’s disappointment was reflected in their alleged decision to contact the Draft Board, resulting in the star athlete being drafted into the military instead. After bring discharged from the Army, Johnson went to play for the Globetrotters, who were then owned by Abe Saperstein.
To be clear, the Original Harlem Globetrotters were not just the fun, entertaining draw they are today. In the early 20th century, the professional basketball leagues were resistant to desegregation, so the Globetrotters were the preeminent place to see the athleticism of Black ballplayers. Back then, little Black boys on makeshift courts across the country aspired to be a Harlem Globetrotter, and initially, the experience was a good one for Johnson. He was afforded the opportunity to do what he loved and travel the world.
Despite a rigorous schedule (the Globetrotters played two to three times the number of games current NBA teams play) and persistent racism, Johnson happily played with the team from 1954 to 1957. He played alongside celebrated players like Woody Saulsberry and Carl Greene, and garnered praise from legends like Wilt Chamberlain who called him “great” and “one of the ones who could really play the game.” But those positive experiences would be short-lived.
“I left school and went with the Harlem Globetrotters not knowing that, one more time, I would find myself being used like a rag and there was nothing that I could do about it,” Johnson said prior to his death in 2002.
In 1949, two rival professional leagues, the NBL and the newly formed BAA, merged into what we now know as the National Basketball Association (NBA). While the first Black ballplayers entered the NBL in 1946, when the two organizations merged, the ability for Blacks to play in the new league was lost for a short period.
However, when Black players were finally, albeit slowly allowed into the NBA (there was an unofficial 2 Black players per team quota), there was only one organization that was best positioned to be a feeder for that process: The Harlem Globetrotters. While that wasn’t a problem in and of itself, it became an issue when Saperstein would not allow players to control the details of their contracts with other teams. Instead, he set himself up as a kind of agent/overseer and began loaning out his players—or selling them outright—to various teams.
“You were still Abe’s boy, even if you were playing somewhere else,” said Johnson. “They would loan us to anyone at any time.”
In 1958, Johnson was “sold” to the Philadelphia Warriors as a starting forward, making him, essentially, half Globetrotter, half Warrior. Unfortunately, when Saperstein’s dream of owning his own NBA franchise fell apart, he took his ball—and his “boy” Andy Johnson—home.
As a result of Saperstein’s decision, Johnson was initially denied his NBA pension because of a waiver dispute (his son fought this and ultimately won the appeal). Saperstein’s choice also robbed Johnson of the opportunity to control his own career and continue playing the sport he loved on the country’s biggest stage.
Then to Now
Andy Johnson’s story is not a unique one. The reality of the slow, quota-based integration of Black players into the NBA is well known. But what’s often not discussed is how many Black ball players were “bought, sold, and borrowed” by various NBA teams, often times without any of the guarantees afforded to today’s players. After investigating and writing about his own father’s plight, Mark Johnson started the Andy Johnson Foundation, an organization that advocates for aging players who often have no voice.
“Most people—even today’s players—don’t really understand what the early Black NBA players had to deal with when it came to white players, owners, and even officials,” Mark said. “I wonder if Steph Curry or LeBron James could ever imagine playing in a game where they were told explicitly not to score—all because the image of the white player being superior needed protecting.”
Mark added, “The freedom they have today was unimaginable for Black players like my dad who played before 1960.”
Players like Johnson were practically forced to accept their own exploitation because they often didn’t have any real understanding of what the consequences were on the business side. In fact, those who were manipulating things behind the scenes counted on this. They counted on Black families wanting greater opportunities for their sons and seeing their God-given athletic talent as a way to obtain them.
But how much has really changed?
Sure, colleges aren’t pulling basketball players out of high school anymore, but many, like the University of North Carolina, are doctoring grades and enrolling them into “paper classes” to keep them eligible. And in the NBA, a player’s athletic prowess (and ultimately, his ability to make billions of dollars for owners and the league) takes precedence over making sure players are equipped to handle the pressures that come along with being a professional athlete. Moreover, a player’s economically disadvantaged background, and his limited knowledge of the business and politics of the NBA, often make the manipulation that much easier.
Yes, today’s ballplayers have more options, more opportunities, and more agency, and there are many people with college degrees who will never make the kind of money most athletes make. But there are also far too many stories of professional ballplayers who, after making millions, end up in financial ruin (see: Latrell Sprewell, Allen Iverson, and David Harrison).
Still, an even greater issue looms, over the NBA, one that is clearly the residue of the early days when Johnson was in the league. It is the ownership mentality that fuels some of the subtle, but systemic, racism we see in the NBA today. It would be easy to assume that the acceptance and proliferation of Black talent has changed things. That more Black bodies on the floor is somehow proof of a post-racial league that respects Black players. Sadly, there is much evidence that this isn’t true.
In 2010, many were outraged by LeBron James’ decision to maximize his free agency and leave the Cleveland Cavaliers to “take his talents” to the Miami Heat. The backlash for his decision reverberated for years and, to this day, there are those who dislike the star for making the move.
Some argue that James’ actions showed a lack of loyalty to his hometown team, others claim it speaks of his greed. Despite the fact that many would never advise a friend to decline a job that offered more money and more opportunities for growth, folks wanted James to stay in Cleveland. The reaction to his choice proved something else was at work.
Were people outraged because a Black man charted his own course? Did James’ decision make owners think other players would attempt to actually use their own freedom papers?
Mark Johnson thinks so: “Everyone should have stood up and cheered for LeBron, especially if they understood the history of the organization,” he said. “I actually don’t even think he understands yet the magnitude of it. While they were all upset, I was jumping up and down. Not because he was going to Miami, but because after 50 years, a Black player not only had a choice of playing in the league but was now able to choose the team he was going to. What he did was unheard of.”
So much has changed since Andy Johnson entered the NBA, but there is still a long way to go. Unfortunately, the league’s lack of Black executives and power brokers only further highlight divide between the owners and the predominately Black talent.
“Yes, things have changed. There’s the illusion of more money for our players.” Johnson said. “But the underlying systemic issues haven’t changed all that much. We can definitely go play on any team, but very few of us are owning those teams. The good ol’ boy network is still very much in effect.”
Tracey M. Lewis-Giggetts is a writer and educator who explores intersectional issues in her work–race, faith, and culture, in particular. The author of nine books was also a collaborator on the book, Basketball Slave: The Andy Johnson Story. She can be found online at www.traceymlewis.com.