In 1949, 42 bronze bells were shipped across the Atlantic Ocean from the Netherlands and installed in the bell tower at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Harlem.
The bells have a remarkable history in their own right. As the first carillon in the world to be played by a Black musician, they have been described by scholars as a “cultural treasure” and “an irreplaceable historical instrument.”
But St. Martin’s didn’t just make history for its tolling church tower. When the bells were installed over 70 years ago, no congregation in the country better represented the melding of basketball and Black culture.
Many of us are familiar with basketball’s Christian origins. The sport, after all, was created at a Christian college (the YMCA’s International Training School) by an ordained Presbyterian minister (James Naismith) for the purpose of cultivating Christian values and spreading the gospel (“winning men to the master through the gym”).
Naismith and the YMCA, however, tell only part of the story. The sport would not have become what we know it to be today had it not been for Black Christian leaders and institutions.
This season, the NBA marks its 75th anniversary. By the time the league was formed, basketball had developed far beyond its Christians roots. And yet, when modern NBA players like Steph Curry splash a three-pointer, or when they champion the cause of racial justice, they bear witness to the past—to the lasting influence of a Christianity nurtured by churches like St. Martin’s that promoted excellence on the court and a social conscience off of it.
Culture making and Black churches
“Here in Harlem the bells are in the center of things, right in the market place of community life.” – John Howard Johnson
For Black residents in New York City, organized basketball started around 1905. The game had been invented 14 years earlier, but the YMCAs that spread the sport were segregated. While white branches had buildings and facilities to support basketball, few allowed Black athletes to participate. And only a handful of Black YMCA groups had their own building, much less the equipment and space for basketball.
Enter Black churches.
As new athletic organizations like the Alpha Physical Cultural Club created basketball teams for the Black community—ushering in the “Black Fives” era—churches often provided the gym space. And some also began to sponsor their own teams.
Most notable among these were several Episcopalian churches that served Black communities: St. Philip’s Episcopal Church (sponsor of the St. Christopher Club), St. Augustine’s (associated with the Smart Set Athletic Club), and St. Cyprian Episcopal Church (whose team was called the “Speed Boys”).
As these Black basketball teams began to train and compete against each other, the sport developed a rapt following among New York City’s Black community. It was entertainment, yes, but something more.
“From the beginning,” scholar Onaje X. O. Woodbine writes, “black churches and clubs fused a religious ethos of ultimate worth and community uplift into the game.”
St. Martin’s in Harlem was part of the network of predominantly Black Episcopal congregations that sponsored sports teams. The church was founded in 1928 by John Howard Johnson, a minister’s son who came of age competing for his father’s St. Cyprian church team. A rangy and athletic sharp-shooting forward, he starred for the Speed Boys in the 1910s before enrolling at Columbia University, where he became the first Black man to take the court for the Lions.
Even though Johnson traded in his jersey for a cleric’s robe after college, his time as an athlete shaped his ministry, with a holistic vision that included care for the body and the soul, the afterlife and the here and now.
“The gospel of the resurrection is not only an announcement that Jesus has conquered death, that we and our loved ones shall live again,” Johnson preached, “but also it is an announcement about the power of God to renew the life of the world.”
Following the path of his father’s church, Johnson established sports and recreation programs at St. Martin’s, seeing them as practical and positive ways to engage the community.
St. Martin’s was linked to New York City’s Black basketball culture in another important way: It was the church home of Bob Douglas, the father of Black professional basketball.
An immigrant from the West Indies, Douglas arrived in New York City around 1900 and five years later witnessed his first basketball game. He was smitten immediately. “Basketball became his life,” Johnson wrote about his congregant.
Douglas cut his teeth in the city’s amateur Black basketball leagues before deciding, in 1923, to carve out a new path and launch the first fully professional Black basketball team, the New York Renaissance Big Five (or the “Harlem Rens”). Over the next few decades, the Rens became one of the truly great teams of professional basketball’s pre-NBA barnstorming era. They played against and defeated the best teams of all races and in 1939 won the first World Championship of Professional Basketball tournament.
When the NBA began operations, however, it ignored this part of the basketball world. From 1946 until 1950, Black players were not allowed the join the league. And into the 1960s, an informal quota system remained in place to limit the number of Black players.
The bells at St. Martin’s, then, testify to the ways that Black institutions cultivated the game when the color line was drawn. For a league in which nearly three-fourths of the players today are Black, the bells remind us that the roots of professional basketball extend far deeper than the NBA.
The sounds of public witness
“May the bells ring out a message of brotherhood and peace and unite us in one Holy Fellowship, those who are near, and those who are far away.” – John Howard Johnson
Church bells can call people together to worship. Yet, once gathered, believers are sent out into the world. More than the sounds of church bells, it’s the lives of churchgoers that make the faith intelligible to the broader world.
Johnson understood this well. “Christianity is essentially a gospel—the announcement of something God has done,” he preached. “The proclamation of His resurrection was the good news His follows made known abroad.”
And that proclamation had implications for everyday life. “From the gospel,” Johnson said, “there flows the system of Christian ethics with its demands upon us for certain kinds of conduct.”
The dilemma is that different Christian communities might prioritize different moral and ethical demands. What seems central to Christian witness for some is not a central concern for others. And in the NBA, the question of race and racial justice has loomed especially large, reflecting broader fault lines within American Christianity.
For Johnson, Christian witness necessarily included work for racial justice. In 1934, he helped lead a campaign aimed at getting white-owned businesses in Harlem to hire Black employees, launching the efforts with a sermon delivered at St. Martin’s, titled “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work.”
Yet what Johnson and other Black church leaders emphasized was not a moral priority for many white believers—not in the 1930s, nor in the ensuing decades as the NBA was created and the civil rights movement gained momentum.
In the 1960s, Boston Celtics great Bill Russell took notice. Russell grew up in Louisiana, spending every Sunday at church. But as he got involved with civil rights activism, Russell grew disenchanted with Christianity. While he supported Martin Luther King Jr.—“my old church days came back strong” when King preached, he said—he also found Malcolm X’s message compelling. And he saw too much hypocrisy among white Christians, too must resistance to the civil rights movement.
Hall of Fame center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar followed a similar trajectory. Raised as a Catholic in New York, Lew Alcindor (as he was known then) went to college at UCLA, where he vocally supported civil rights activism while also interrogated the contradictions of American Christianity. For a faith that claimed to unify and speak to the needs of people of all races, why was the experience of Black Christians so different?
“We don’t catch hell because we’re Christians,” he told a reporter in 1967. “We catch hell because we’re Black.” The next year, while still at UCLA, Alcindor converted to Islam.
It was not just Black NBA players who grew disenchanted with the public witness of the church. As a high schooler, future New York Knicks forward Bill Bradley attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes event and committed his life to Christ. When Bradley moved on to college at Princeton, he became a national sensation and basketball star, profiled in John McPhee’s acclaimed book A Sense Of Where You Are (1964).
Through it all, Bradley served as a poster boy for Christian athletes. But by the time he joined the Knicks in 1967—cast as a “great white hope” in a league increasingly led by Black players—he had grown uncomfortable with the attention. His evangelical faith was challenged, too, by his growing social awareness. He was surprised to find that many of his fellow evangelicals did not share his support for the civil rights movement, and soon after joining the Knicks, Bradley left his evangelical commitments behind.
For Russell, Abdul-Jabbar, and Bradley, the sounds of the church bells repelled them rather than drew them in, in part because the moral priorities of church members did not seem to include concern for racial justice.
“The bells will speak of God and call men and women to church, not necessarily to this church, but to some church … seeking individual souls, lonely souls, tired souls, to give them courage.” – John Howard Johnson
Other NBA players continued to find solace and comfort in the Christian faith. The first pick of the 1968 draft, Elvin Hayes was supposed to be the league’s next big star. But the pressure of high expectations and the grind of NBA life exhausted him. He grew distant from his wife, Erna, and dependent on sleeping pills.
Then one Sunday in the summer of 1973, he decided to join Erna at her Pentecostal church. Hayes felt God speak to him during the service, and he gave his life to Christ. “I had accumulated all the things I thought important,” Hayes later explained. “But there was a void I couldn't fill. Only God could.”
For Hayes, God’s presence in his life eased the glare of the NBA spotlight and also brought “total harmony” to his home. Those two themes—peace in the midst of pressure and marriages strengthened by faith—would be echoed in subsequent years by numerous Christian players.
Still, it was not easy for NBA players to nourish their spiritual lives. In a league defined by constant travel and uneven weekly rhythms, players had a hard time remaining rooted in a local church community. At the end of the 1970s, however, a solution was developed: Church could come to the locker room. Building off of models developed in baseball and football, NBA teams began offering their own voluntary pregame chapel services.
The NBA’s chapel system was organized by predominantly white evangelical sports ministries, but they worked to serve an interracial constituency. In Chicago, this included collaborating with Henry Soles, an African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) pastor, who launched chapel services for the Chicago Bulls in 1979 and served as the team’s senior chaplain for the next two decades.
Even if evangelical sports ministries served NBA players of all races, into the 1990s their public witness was largely shaped by the concerns of the predominantly white Christian Right.
This meant that when Los Angeles Lakers forward A. C. Green and other Black athletes spoke up about conservative family values issues like sexual abstinence—issues that could overlap with racial uplift themes historically present within Black churches—their voices were amplified.
But discussions about racism that went beyond individual heart change were rarely promoted as matters of Christian concern. The voices of Black Christians like Soles, who criticized the Moral Majority for being “weak” in its “application of biblical principles” to the needs of Black Americans, remained in the background.
Soles’ assistant chaplain with the Bulls, Scott Bradley, experienced this too. Bradley was a minister with the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), a historically Black Pentecostal denomination. In 1991, right after the Michael Jordan–led Bulls won their first NBA championship, millions watched on television as Bradley lead the victors in the Lord’s Prayer.
Far fewer people noticed two years later when Bradley addressed the persistence of racism in American society. "If the Black man has been lied to,” Bradley declared, “the Black minister must address it."
Bradley took aim at the hypocrisy of the “war on drugs” and the way it disproportionally incarcerated Black men. He wrote about the exploitation of Black athletes—how they were expected to put their bodies on the line as players but denied opportunities as coaches or executives. And he pointed out that any time Black athletes criticized racism, they were told they should shut up and be grateful.
"The Black athlete is not to speak out on certain issues,” Bradley wrote, “or else he is discredited and tabbed by the media as ‘outspoken.’”
In evangelical sports ministry spaces at the time, Bradley’s insights barely caused a ripple. Yet, they demonstrate the ongoing, behind-the-scenes presence within the NBA of Black Christian understandings of race and justice that sometimes differed from the evangelical mainstream.
In recent years, as a new era of racial reckoning has enveloped American culture, the ideas articulated by Bradley decades ago have gained a wider hearing. Rather than remaining in the background or confined to Black Christian spaces, a growing number of Christian athletes have publicly emphasized racial justice and systemic reform as matters of Christian concern.
Sacramento Kings forward Harrison Barnes, whose goal is to play basketball for God’s glory, has supported efforts to provide Black people “a more equitable stake in society.”
Steph Curry, the most prominent Christian athlete in the game today, has lent his support to several racial justice initiatives, including the Institute for Nonviolence and Social Justice, led by Clarence Jones, a lawyer and advisor for Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s.
Malcolm Brogdon of the Indiana Pacers has also participated in marches and demonstrations, carrying on a family legacy: His grandfather, John Hurst Adams, was an AME bishop and “hell-raiser on behalf of civil rights” in the 1960s and beyond.
This recent activism can raise important questions about the consistency of Christian witness. What does faithful public engagement look like when you’re part of a multibillion-dollar global brand? What if Christian athletes have opinions on other ethical and social issues—like gender and sexuality or China’s human rights record—that differ from NBA leadership? How public do they need to be about their convictions?
Sometimes these questions are asked in good faith, but sometimes they are driven more by a desire to discredit NBA players as irredeemably “woke,” simply riding the recent social justice trend.
The bells at St. Martin’s, however, tell us something else. They remind us that racial justice activism in sports is not new. In an important sense, it is rooted in something that predates the NBA itself: the history of blending basketball, concern for racial justice, and Christian witness represented by John Howard Johnson’s Harlem congregation.
As the NBA celebrates 75 years, that history is worth remembering. Not only did Black churches help to develop the on-court game that millions of fans across the globe celebrate; they also helped to nurture the social conscience and concern for racial justice that many NBA players champion today.
Paul Emory Putz is a historian studying sports and Christianity and serves as the assistant director of the sports ministry program at Baylor University’s Truett Seminary.
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