Commonwealth Big Five
Commonwealth Big Five, of the Harlem section of New York, was the first overtly professional African American team, playing two seasons, in 1923 and 1924. It won the Colored Basketball World's Championship in 1924.
The Commonwealth Big Five was the creation of a brother pair of Irishman from Brooklyn, Jess and Rod McMahon, who were long-time boxing promoters (Jess McMahon was owner of the legendary black baseball team, the Lincoln Giants). Jess and Rod McMahon regularly booked boxing shows, some integrated, in their Commonwealth Casino, on 135th Street in Harlem, and decided to fill the arena between boxing matches with wrestling matches, roller skating shows, and most importantly basketball games. The brothers decided to form their own African American team to host the games, and proceeded to recruit from the cream of black teams of the day to build a team.
The African American basketball league, the Metropolitan Basketball Association, had been trying to preserve its amateur purity by expelling players for professionalism, and so the McMahon brothers had a fertile field from which to recruit. Besides picking up Lincoln Giants great, veteran Strangler Forbes, as player/coach, they brought in Clarence "Fats" Jenkins, his brother Harold Jenkins, George Fiall (all three from the St. Christopher Club, Hop Hubbard (from the Forty Club in Chicago), Specs Moton (from the Loendi Big Five), Hilton Slocum (from the Spartan Braves), and Leon Monde (from Borough Athletic Club).
The Commonwealth Big Five had a huge launch by the McMahon brothers and African Americans, debuting at the Commonwealth Casino in early November against a modest team, the Monarch Lodge of Elks. Througout the season, African American basketball fans flocked to the venue to see their games, and while the Commonwealth team won most of its games on its home floor, it lost several games on the road, notably to the Vandal Big Five of Atlantic City. A rare home loss to the Perth Amboy Five, the New Jersey colored champs, was due to over-the-hill player-coach Strangler refusing to pull himself from the game, when younger legs were needed. The McMahon replaced him with Clarence Jenkins before 1922 was out. The highlight of the season was the Commonwealth Big Five hosting the Original Celtics, which they lost 41-29. The first half was played by AAU rules, familiar to the Commonwealth team, but the second half was played under professional rules which gave the Original Celtics a big advantage.
The Commonwealth Big Five played a pair of home and away games against defending Colored Basketball World's Champions, the Loendi Big Five, and lost both, 51-27 in Pittsburgh, and 43-33 Harlem, and near the end of the season suffered another loss to the Original Celtics. Nonetheless, the Commonwealth team ended the season with a 75-15 record, with a number of victories over white teams, and was a financial success for the McMahon brothers, paving the way for fully professional basketball in the African American community.
The McMahon brothers prepared for the 1923-24 season by recruiting top Loendi player, Legs Sessions, for the increasingly powerful lineup. However, early in the season, both Sessions and Specs Moton reunited with Loendi, and the Commonwealth Big Five struggled early. The team suffered its third loss to the Original Celtics, 40-28, before 2,000 fans.
The Commonwealth Big Five regained its form by February, when in two highly anticipated games, it defeated the newly formed Renaissance Five, 38-35 and 31-21. (The Renaissance was the second fully professional African American team launched by Bob Douglas in the newly opened Renaissance Casino from the ashes of his Spartan Braves team.) Based on these two victories, the Commonwealth Big Five was regarded as the Colored Basketball World’s Champions for 1924. The McMahon brothers found that although championships are wonderful, it does not always put bread on the table. The Sunday night games in 1923-24 rarely sold out, and a result they disbanded the team after only two seasons. Their legacy was to bring down amateur basketball in the African American community and launch the era of professionalism.
Another part of the legacy can be see when Jess McMahon entered professional wrestling promoting in the 1930s. This promotion was continued after his death in 1954 by his son, Vince McMahon, and continued into the next century, by his grandson, Vince McMahon Jr.