EXCLUSIVE: The pre-NBA history of Black athletes in basketball is the subject of a documentary being developed by LA Lakers star Russell Westbrook and his Zero World Media (Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre), Ben Silverman and Howard T. Owens’ Propagate Content and The Black Fives Foundation.
Known as the Black Fives Era, the period spanned from 1904, when the game was first introduced to Black schoolchildren on a wide scale organized basis, to 1950, when the NBA signed its first Black players.
Dozens of African American basketball “fives,” a reference to the five starting players on a squad, emerged and thrived, helping to popularize the sport around the country with high caliber talent and innovative styles of play on the courts of big cities and remote towns alike.
Barred from whites-only gymnasiums and athletic clubs, Black Fives Era teams played in church basements, armories, meeting halls and dance ballrooms while featuring popular all-Black ragtime, blues, and jazz orchestras before and after games with dancing well past midnight to create meaningful social events and a marriage of sports with music that remains today.
The documentary project aims at capturing the stories of how the pioneering efforts of Black Fives Era players paved the way for the global appeal of the modern game against the backdrop of the cultural evolution of Black America itself.
“I’m excited to work with Propagate and The Black Fives Foundation on this project,” Westbrook said. “This subject is obviously very personal to me for a number of reasons. These teams helped break racial and societal barriers and paved the way for the game and the NBA as a whole. These stories deserve to be told and I’m proud of Zero World Media’s involvement.”
Marco Williams, who collaborated with Westbrook’s Zero World Media on the Emmy-nominated 2021 History documentary Tulsa Burning: The 1921 Race Massacre, is attached to direct and executive produce.
Silverman, Owens and Valerie Idehen executive produce for Propagate. Westbrook, Donnell Beverly Jr., and Raynard Westbrook executive produce for Zero World Media. The Black Fives Foundation’s Claude Johnson serves as co-executive producer.
“Propagate is dedicated to telling culturally impactful stories that both entertain and educate,” said Silverman, Chairman and Co-CEO and Owens, Co-CEO of Propagate. “The Black Fives laid the foundation for the modern game of basketball that we know and love today. We are proud to partner on this meaningful project with Claude Johnson, Russell Westbrook, and Zero World Media.”
Added Johnson, “This important part of American history was buried in an unmarked grave, until now. I’m thrilled by this alliance because the passion, insight, and perspective of Russell Westbrook, an iconic member of the NBA Family, combined with the visionary and groundbreaking storytelling talents of Propagate, create a powerful formula that unearths and shines a deserving light on its once-forgotten teams, players, and contributors as never before.”
Johnson noted that there may be numerous current and former NBA and WNBA players with ancestral ties to Black Fives Era pioneers, connections that the Black Fives Foundation is set up to pursue. The foundation’s mission is to research, preserve, showcase, teach, and honor the pre-NBA history of African Americans in basketball. The organization was founded by author and historian Claude Johnson, whose forthcoming book, The Black Fives: The Epic Story of Basketball’s Forgotten Era, will be published in May 2022 by Abrams Press.
Williams previously collaborated with Johnson on a short video about the Black Fives for The New York Historical Society.
“I knew then what Claude has always known, there is a more expansive story to be told. Now is that time,” Williams said. “I am also excited to reunite with Russell on a new film. Our effort to bring the story of the 1921 Tulsa Race massacre to a wider audience was a bonafide success. Having the documentary produced by Propagate Content, with Ben, Howard, and Val, makes them ideal collaborators. I have been dedicated to telling untold, hidden and buried American stories my entire career. This project aligns with our collective mission and is a slam dunk for us.”
Propagate’s recent credits include Rebelde Way and Untold for Netflix, Fox drama series Our Kind of People, the upcoming American adaptation of The Eurovision Song Contest, Charmed on The CW and the upcoming Zorro television series for NBC, among many others.
Long untold, the stories of Black professional sports leagues are finally coming to light. Apple is currently developing a Negro League Baseball drama series from Magic Johnson, Peter Guber and Kapital Entertainment.
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