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You Should Know About the Harlem Nocturnes Basketball Team

Sixty years ago this month, one of the region’s most exciting teams was well on their way to overall league victory, and you’ve probably never heard of them. The Harlem Nocturnes captured the B.C Senior Men’s Basketball Championship on March 9th, 1963. It was the stuff of a Hollywood movie, in which the underdogs beat the odds to achieve local basketball supremacy.

According to Vancouver Sun sports columnist Arv Olsen, the Harlem Nocturnes “scaled the top of the Inter-City Basketball League” by winning the best-of-five final series over the McGavin’s Bakers team on February 27th, 1963 at the King Edward Gym. “It was a climb that took three years,” wrote Olsen, “two of them filled with defeat, frustration, and humiliation.” In their first two seasons, the Harlems won only four of 42 games! Due to their poor record, the local sports press gave the team the moniker the “hapless Harlems”, and the basketball commissioner seriously considered not letting the team back into league for the 1962/63 season – making their 3rd season turnaround even more spectacular.

That first victory was followed by an even sweeter one 10 days later, when the Harlems beat their arch rivals, the Alberni Athletics, in another best-of-five series to win the B.C. Championships (more about the animosity between the two clubs later).

The Harlem Nocturnes in action. Photo: The Vancouver Sun, Feb. 28, 1963; The Vancouver Sun, Nov. 8, 1961; The Vancouver Sun, Jan. 5, 1962.

Who were the Harlem Nocturnes? Made up predominantly of Black athletes, the team was formed in 1960 as part of the new six-team inter-city senior “A” basketball league. They got their name from their sponsor, The Harlem Nocturne Cabaret, which was owned and operated by Ernie King, who also served as the team’s manager.

The Harlem Nocturne Cabaret, then Vancouver’s only Black-owned nightclub, was on the ground floor of the Tweedale Block at 343 East Hastings. It was operated by trombonist and bandleader (King) and his wife, Marcella (Marcie) “Choo Choo” Williams, a professional dancer and entertainer.

Ernie King and Marcella “Choo Choo” Williams

Recently, I got a chance to talk with Judy Graham (King’s stepdaughter and Marcella Williams daughter) about King and the Harlem Nocturnes. She read to me excerpts from a manuscript that King wrote about his life. In this manuscript, King said, “My main reason for starting the club was that I was not able to find a job in the profession I chose. After studying for years and touring with bands, I came back to my hometown [Vancouver] and was unable to find a job as a musician.” The story goes that one day in 1957, King stopped by Il Trovatore (a club that occupied the space at 343 E Hastings) to see if they would hire him to play there. He ended up buying the business instead. Harlem Nocturne cabaret opened in December 1957. Like The Penthouse and the New Delhi, the Harlem Nocturne was denied a liquor license and operated as a bottle-club.

Player/coach of the Harlem Nocturnes, John Braithwaite, recalled going to the club “every Friday and Saturday night, carrying our bottles of liquor in brown bags, so if the police came in we’d shove it under the table.” He went on to say that all these guys gravitated to the Harlem Nocturne at the same time, and they decided to form their own team. Some of them, including Braithwaite, were already playing basketball for other teams in the league. Others were professional football players for the BC Lions. King said he’d sponsor the team and the Harlem Nocturnes were born.

341 East Hastings Street in 1974, The Unicorn Supper Club was where The Harlem Nocturne was located. Photo: COV Archives, CVA 1095-02650.

So, why were the Harlem Nocturnes and the Alberni Athletics arch-rivals? The animosity between the two teams was well documented in the press. In one Vancouver Sun newspaper account from January 1961, the Alberni Athletics whipped the Harlem Nocturnes 96-79 “in a brawl that resembled a football contest”, where Harlem Nocturne player, Paul Winn, was “struck in the throat by an elbow and a doctor had to restore his breathing before the game resumed”. Two Alberni players required multiple stitches “as a result of flying elbows in a wild second half”, and another Alberni player was “tossed out of the game after throwing a ball at the referee”.

Something that wasn’t reported in the newspapers were the reasons behind the animosity — specifically the racism the team experienced. I was curious about this, so I asked Braithwaite (through his daughter-in-law, Nicole) about it. Apparently, the abuse came not only from the Alberni spectators but also from the players. Braithwaite elaborated: “When we went to Alberni we were called every [racist] name that you can think of.” According to him, the Alberni fans would throw pennies at the Nocturnes as they passed by. “One Alberni player in particular would relentlessly harass the Nocturnes players just to rile them up. It wasn’t long before the Nocturnes had enough and hit back. On at least one occasion the fighting continued into the dressing room after the game.”

George Jolly and Riley Jones of the Harlem Nocturnes. Photo: The Province Dec. 12, 1962.

After every championship win, it was customary for the winning team’s name to be engraved on a small shield to be affixed to the Basketball Association’s trophy, as a permanent reminder of the victory. However, for some untold reason, after the Harlem Nocturnes championship win the basketball commission told King that they couldn’t have their team name engraved on the cup. There appeared to be no explanation given for this change in protocol. King was so mad at them that he paid out of his own pocket to have the trophy engraved. It was important to King and the team that there was a permanent record of their victory, and nobody could take that away from them.*

Basketball athleticism aside, the Harlem Nocturnes team was made up of players from diverse backgrounds and consisted of several future movers and shakers.

Braithwaite was the team’s backbone. Originally from Toronto, he came to North Vancouver in 1956 to work at North Shore Neighbourhood House as a young social worker. A year later, at the age of 27, he became its Executive Director. Braithwaite entered municipal politics in 1972, when he was first elected to the North Vancouver city council. He served on council until 1976. Braithwaite rejoined council in 1983 and was then re-elected consecutively until his retirement in 2002. North Vancouver’s John Braithwaite Community Centre is named in his honour.

Paul Winn’s Harlem Nocturnes home uniform from the Museum of Vancouver. Photo: MOV, H2022.1.1

Also originally from Toronto, Winn was one of the team’s youngest players. He is a community and human rights activist, former civil servant, lawyer, and CBC broadcaster. The relationship between Braithwaite and Winn goes back to the late 1950s, when Braithwaite acted as the teenaged Winn’s legal guardian. Winn attended North Vancouver High School and competed alongside Harry and Valerie Jerome in High School athletics. Winn played basketball in high school and Braithwaite was the team’s coach.

Emery Barnes kissing his MVP trophy. Photo: The Province, March 10, 1962.

Born in Louisiana, Emery Barnes played football with the BC Lions from 1962-64. Like Braithwaite, Barnes worked as a social worker before entering politics. He was elected as an MLA for the New Democratic Party from 1972-96, and became speaker in 1994 – the first black person in Canada to hold this position. Vancouver’s Emery Barnes Park was named in his memory. Barnes was one of the Nocturnes top scorers, and he won the Inter-City league’s MVP trophy for the 61/62 season.

In addition, several American athletes of note – like Vince Knight, Billy Joe Price, Riley Jones, and Frank Gilliam – all played for the Harlem Nocturnes during their winning season.

Beyond The Harlem Nocturne club and team, King had “a lot of projects trying to promote black culture and support creative endeavours”. His daughter, Lovena Fox, believed that after Hogan’s Alley was destroyed, King “really wanted to do things to bring Black people together.” Among his life’s many achievements, King served as president of the BCAACP (British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People), started the Sepia Players (a black theatre troupe in the 1970s), and tried several times to have a Black community centre established.

Photo: The Province, September 24, 1964.

By the start of the 1964/65 basketball season, the Harlem Nocturnes were no more. A brief newspaper item revealed that the “former Harlem Nocturnes” team were in search of a new sponsor (and therefore a new name). King left the nightclub operation behind, hired a manager to run the club, and went back into the trucking business. He had young kids at home and wanted work that gave him more peace of mind. The Harlem Nocturne Cabaret continued along for another two years, before finally closing in 1967.

Newspaper adverts for The Harlem Nocturne from the late 1950s.

Fun Fact: After they moved their home court from Vancouver’s King Edward Gym to the North Vancouver Community Centre, the Harlem Nocturnes were also known as the “North Van Harlems”.

I was very fortunate to be able to interview Braithwaite via his daughter-in-law, Cst. Nicole Braithwaite. I sent Nicole a set of questions and she recorded their conversation for me. I was also fortunate to chat on the telephone with Lovena Fox and Judy Graham, who shared stories about Ernie King. I only wish I was able to include them all in this article.

*The current whereabouts of that trophy is unknown, but it may very well be the ‘Star’ Cup BC Amateur Basketball Association trophy I found in the collection of the BC Sports Hall of Fame. An in-person visit to examine the trophy is still needed in order to clear up this mystery…

There are 10 comments

  1. Hi Christine

    I thoroughly enjoyed the history of the Harlem Nocturne Basketball Team. I was not aware of the early success of the team under the tutelage / ownership of Ray King. I was extremely fortunate to have played in the Vancouver Men’s Dogwood League (early to late 70’s) with a few of the names mentioned in the article (Billy Joe Price, Slick Carter). Did not know George Jolly was a valued member of Ray’s team soon after his arrival to Vancouver after his stint with the U S Navy. George had a impactful career as a Social Worker and Coaching High School Basketball (University Hill Secondary mid 1970’s).

    Names you mentioned contributed greatly to to the social fabric and history of our community. Knowing some personally, and hearing about the contributions of others, provided me with positive role models from our Black Community!

    Thanks again.

    Randy Clark

  2. Thank you for your comments and sharing your own basketball experience, Randy!

    It’s good to know that Billy Joe Price and Slick Carter continued with basketball into the 1970s. I also didn’t know that George Jolly was also a social worker. It is interesting that there were so many social workers playing on the team.

  3. Hmm. I had no idea the story of the Nocturnes went so deep. Definitely part of Vancouver by all rights. My Dad was on the team also. I see him number 10. This picture is in his basement still. I’ll show him this story when I see him next.

  4. Seeing these names of my Dad’s athlete friends brings back a lot of memories to light. Some photos and newspaper clippings are still framed on the family wall. George Jolly, Billy Joe Price, Ray Goodwin, Emery Barnes, Vince Knight, Riley Jones, Ernie King, John Braithwaite and others partied in our household at one time or another. Thank you for bringing their story to a new generation!

    Derrick Carter

  5. My bro is right, I recall most of those names also. Dad will be amazed I’m sure.

  6. Sick Carter is also still a very active softball player in the Tri Cites. And plays in the senior World Series in Huntsman, Utah every year.

  7. I thoroughly enjoyed reading the write up. It brings back a lot of nice memories. I’m Deanne Price, wife of Billy Joe Price, we use to frequent The Harlem Nocturne club,listen to Ernie Kings band. I noticed the newspaper clipping you had of Billy Joe playing basketball. I think I may have the same clipping. We would always enjoy going to the games! I haven’t looked @ his scrap books in a while, but seeing your nice write up reminds me to go through the clippings again.

  8. Thank you, Deanne, Cameron and Derrick for sharing your comments and memories. It is so great to hear from the family members of the players. And it is so great to hear that Slick Carter is still active in sports.

  9. Nice article, it was a very interesting read, as I recognize many of the names mentioned, as well as Ernie King’s Harlem Nocturne Night Club, which my parents, Aunts and Uncles, and others of the black community went to. My uncle Matt Clifton, along with the aforementioned Slick Carter, also was also an accomplished athlete in Basketball and Baseball. They also had a pretty good team, and they called themselves the ( over the hill gang) and they competed competitively against teams much younger than them.

  10. It was very interesting to hear this history. I spoke to Ernie King over the years when I was also trying to establish a Black Cultural Centre and his historical insight was invaluable. we need to make sure that more of the early history is documented.

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