Hall of Famer Zack Clayton forges unique legacy in basketball, sports and life

David Aldridge
Sep 11, 2017 10:40 AM ET

Lauren Myers gave the Hall of Fame enshrinement speech for her great uncle, Zack Clayton.
Was it Zack, or Zach? Doesn’t matter. What year was he born? I’m not going to tell you. Lauren Myers did not push her great aunt, Lunette, further. The important thing was that Zack, or Zach, was going to be in Springfield, at long last. Twenty years after his death, Zack Clayton (that’s how it was spelled in most retellings and accounts, so we’ll go with that), was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame last week, as a star player during the Black Fives era for several teams, most notably the New York Renaissance -- though he also had a couple of brief stints with the Harlem Globetrotters.

They have a case in the basement, and the trophies were always there. We’d say ‘you must’ve been really good.’ And he’d say, ‘I was okay.’

Lauren Myers, on her great uncle, Zack Clayton

Yet Myers knew her great uncle more for his work 20 years after his basketball career ended -- as a boxing referee, who became one of the best at his craft, working the Muhammad Ali-George Foreman “Rumble in the Jungle” title fight in Zaire in 1974. By the time Myers was old enough to understand, Clayton’s basketball days were nearly forgotten by everyone. “He didn’t talk much about it,” said Myers, who spoke for the family in Springfield. (Lunette Clayton still lives in Philly, but at 102 years young, didn’t travel to Massachusetts for the ceremony.) “Granted, I’m much younger, but he talked most about boxing I feel, because of the relevance at that juncture -- that’s where he was,” Myers said. “But we knew he played for the Globetrotters. And I think that may have been his connection, because the Globetrotters still existed. We always saw his trophies. They have a case in the basement, and the trophies were always there. We’d say ‘you must’ve been really good.’ And he’d say, ‘I was okay.’ "
Zack Clayton was a standout player during the Black Fives era.
Clayton’s life opens like a book, in an era where great athletes played in multiple sports with success. He started at the same Christian Street YMCA in Philadelphia where Wilt Chamberlain, Earl Monroe, John Chaney and other legends from the City of Brotherly Love played. After starring in baseball, basketball, football and track at Simon Gratz High School (alumni from that historic school include NBAers Rasheed Wallace and Aaron McKie, singer Eddie Fisher, and Hall of Fame baseball catcher Roy Campanella), Clayton started his pro career in baseball, as a left-handed hitting first baseman and catcher in the Independent Negro Leagues. He broke in with Santop’s Broncos in 1931, then the Atlantic City Bacharach Giants in 1932. In 1934, Bacharach joined the Negro National League. But Clayton was still playing basketball in the winters. The great historian of the Black Fives era, Claude Johnson, lists Clayton playing for local teams in Philly like the Wissahickon Speed Boys, the Philadelphia Tribune Five and the Philadelphia Panthers. In 1934, Clayton went to Chicago to play ball for the Chicago Crusaders, a team featuring players who’d played for the famed Savoy Big Five team out of New York; other remnants of the Savoy teams were reassembled along the way by promoter Abe Saperstein and became the Harlem Globetrotters. In 1935, Clayton signed with the New York Renaissance, perhaps the most famous team of the Black Fives era. Formed by Bob Douglas -- “The Father of Black Professional Basketball” -- in 1922, the Rens played at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem, but soon became a barnstorming team in the tradition of the day. That same year, Clayton played with the Globetrotters. With the Rens, Clayton joined a team that had played just seven players for five straight years -- the “Magnificent Seven” led by future Hall of Famer and fellow Philadelphian Charles (Tarzan) Cooper, the first African-American player inducted into the Naismith Hall in 1977, and the electric guard Clarence (Fats) Jenkins, who captained the team for 15 years. The Rens won 88 straight games during their 1932-33 season and played .865 basketball during an 11-year stretch, including several close games that were close because the Rens kept it that way. "We were smart enough to keep the score down and make the people think they were seeing a real game," Douglas told Sports Illustrated just before his death in 1979. "They didn't know we were carrying the home team; it was good business to let the locals think they could beat us the next time around." Clayton played on the 1938-39 Rens team that won the first World Professional Basketball Tournament in Chicago, finishing that season with a record of 122-7. By then, the Rens had added two other future Hall of Famers: guards William (Pop) Gates and Johnny (Wonder Boy) Isaacs. The Rens beat the Globetrotters in the semifinals before defeating the Oskosh All-Stars 34-25 at the Chicago Coliseum; Clayton made the all-tournament team. “The Rens went about their task methodically,” according to an account in the Chicago Defender, the historic African-American newspaper, “and with (the) same precision which characterizes their play. When they needed it, they produced a scoring punch. When they guarded, they did so to such an extent that the Wisconsin white team was forced to shoot from a distance and the shooting was erratic. The Rens’ defense was superb.” In 1942, Clayton and most of the Rens left that team and moved down to Washington, D.C. to play for the newly formed Washington Bears, a team funded by local theatre owner and manager Abe Lichtman. The Bears went 41-0 that season, and beat Oshkosh again in the World Tournament final, in front of a then-record crowd of 12,000, to complete the perfect season. Clayton played pro baseball as late as 1946, when he hit .375 for the Oakland Larks of the West Coast Negro Baseball League; one of his teammates that year was Sam Jones, who became the first black pitcher to throw a no-hitter in the Major Leagues, with the Cleveland Indians in 1955. Clayton’s basketball career ended in 1949, just as the pro game was beginning to integrate. But by then he was, improbably, embarking on yet another career. He had boxed some as well in between his other sporting endeavors, and while he was too old by ’49 to start fighting for a living, he was still more than athletic enough to be the third man in the ring. He wound up refereeing more than 200 fights, including Ali-Foreman. Confusion about when the count actually began after Ali knocked Foreman down at the eighth round led to controversy afterward, as many believed Clayton miscounted and called Foreman out when Foreman was actually on his feet by the count of eight. But many people believed that because they were watching the closed-circuit feed broadcast around the world, and the play-by-play man calling the fight, Bob Sheridan, was only on eight when Foreman got to his feet. But Sheridan cleared up much of the confusion in 2014, telling USA Today that he “blew the call” and didn’t know what the count actually was when he started counting on air. Clayton was, in this business, also a pioneer. He was the first African-American to officiate a heavyweight championship fight, between Jersey Joe Walcott and Ezzard Charles, in 1952. He hired the first female judge to score a fight, Carol Polis, in his role as chair of the Pennsylvania Boxing Commission in 1972. And he taught dozens of young referees how to hone their craft. “Zack taught me how to be smooth in the ring,” said Steve Smoger, who went on to become one of boxing’s best referees, in the book Third Man in the Ring. “He taught me some rhythm and how to move around.” Clayton also worked for the city of Philadelphia as a fireman for 30 years, during which time he also was named to run the city’s gang control unit for its infamous mayor, Frank Rizzo. “I was talking with one of my uncles,” Myers said. “We were kidding -- ‘what does Uncle Zack know about gangs? We’re from Mount Airy.’ ” But it was just one part of a remarkable life, one that took weeks to sort out after Clayton died in 1997. The boxes at his house were everywhere. Yet there was a surprise for Myers everywhere she turned. “I feel this is one of these moments where I’ve learned so much about the different sides, learned more about his lives that I didn’t know much about,” Myers said. “I read letters, correspondence with him and Pop Gates. I read correspondence from Satchel (Paige) that he sent to Uncle Zack. Letters that were from owners, addressing him as Mr. Clayton -- and I’m like, these were white men, at this time, they’re saying Mr. Clayton – ‘may you get us some colored players?’ And not being offended because that was the language of the time. It was like, wow, people are coming to him and saying we trust that you can get some good players.” Clayton is the latest member of the Black Fives era to make the Hall, a feat made easier by the direct election process with the Early African American Pioneers Committee, and with the help of Johnson’s tireless efforts in pushing for players like Clayton, whose exploits were often not recorded statistically, as well as players, coaches and contributors like Cumberland Posey, Isaacs and Edwin B. Henderson. He speaks for an era long gone by. “They’re a dying group,” Myers said of the Black Fives era. “Being able to preserve that oral tradition that we have in our culture, especially. And even the current players, looking at it from a different perspective, it’s like, give back.” Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter. 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