Hall of Fame inductee Zack Clayton was not only a hoops star, but also reffed the Rumble in the Jungle
He played both basketball and baseball before his long career in the ring
In the yellowed clippings from a March 1942 issue of the Pittsburgh Courier, Claude Johnson found this passage in a game story about a night the Harlem Renaissance came back from 14 points down in the fourth quarter against the Fort Wayne Pistons at Madison Square Garden:
“At this crucial point, Zack Clayton, the Philly phantom, shot the money basket of the tournament,” the article recounted. “Standing on the side, near mid-court, with the clock ticking away precious seconds, Clayton took a pass and set himself for the shot that clinched the ballgame, the one that eventually sewed up the tourney for the Rens. It was nothing but net.”
During his research, Johnson, the executive director of the Black Fives Foundation, noticed newspapers frequently using another nickname for the 6-foot-1, 195-pound shooting guard who had the range of a pre-World War II Stephen Curry: “The Black Bomber.”
The legend grew. And grew. Yet time passed. Clayton eventually faded from memory. His role as the referee for the Rumble in the Jungle, the historic 1974 boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, almost eclipsed his own athletic achievements. Despite his basketball exploits, Clayton died and there was no journey to Springfield, Massachusetts, in this life. That oversight is being remedied this weekend at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“He’s been due for a while,” said Johnson. “It not only brings proper recognition to Zachary Clayton’s famous and pioneering on-court achievements, but it also shines a well-earned spotlight on his many unsung, off-court contributions as one of Philadelphia’s community heroes.”
Clayton died in 1997 at the age of 84. Twenty years after his passing, he’ll enter the hall as a selection of the Early African American Pioneers Committee. He will be posthumously enshrined Friday night by another Philadelphian of some hoop renown, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.
“Man, this guy had such a life,” Monroe said from his New Jersey home Wednesday night. Monroe’s body is in a hammerlock from multiple lower-body surgeries, some brought on by diabetes, others by old basketball injuries that never go away. Monroe never met Clayton. He can barely walk. But he is still getting into his car and driving to Springfield.
“I’m writing my speech now, talking about why we never knew more about Zack Clayton and why we should have.”
Clayton’s great-niece said others will finally get to appreciate her humble, but always dressed to the nines, “Uncle Zack.” (Clayton’s widow, Lunette, is 102 and unable to travel.)
“Going through this journey, I keep seeing people focusing very specifically on the basketball component,” said Lauren Myers, 41. “No one talked about all the lives Uncle Zack had. If they only knew …”
If you could travel through a time portal of black American sporting pioneers, you might first suit up for the Harlem Rens and the Globetrotters in the late ’30s and early ’40s. Then maybe barnstorm the Negro Leagues, where you’d ask Jackie Robinson and Satchel Paige for advice. Or better yet, sidling up to them at the batting cage, they’d ask you. And, finally, you’d program that portal to the exact middle of the ring for the Rumble in the Jungle in Zaire.
And during this pilgrimage, you’d have only one constant companion: a quiet, lean, immaculately dressed Philadelphian who was at the center of so much pivotal African-American history, including counting Foreman out as the eighth round ended that long-ago night in Africa.
Clayton was a boxing judge and referee for 40 years, who, in the 1952 Ezzard Charles-“Jersey” Joe Walcott bout, became the first black man to officiate a heavyweight championship fight.
Clayton started his basketball career playing for his hometown Wissahickon Speed Boys and three other Philadelphia teams (the Tribune Five; the Panthers, who were also known as the Philadelphia Colored Giants; and the Quaker City Elks). He went on to national fame with the Chicago Crusaders, who went 41-0 in 1943, the New York Rens, the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Bears. He helped the Rens win the world championship in 1939 and was widely considered one of the greatest two-way players of his era. Left-handed, he was ambidextrous and could go to either hand with ease.
“I think the Harlem Globetrotters, Renaissance and the Bears paved the way for blacks by defeating the best white teams for the world championships,” he said in a 1989 interview. “That was a major accomplishment for blacks in the sport of basketball.”
Then he transitioned into what the Philadelphia Inquirer called “a brilliant first baseman” for the Philadelphia Stars and Giants, the New York Black Yankees and the Bacharach Giants of the Negro Leagues. Myers still has correspondence between her great-uncle and star pitcher Paige.
“He was one of those people, when I would come home from college, you didn’t do anything until you saw Uncle Zack,” Myers said. “Even when he played, he would sacrifice himself so others could be involved. And he was such a leader. I found out later that the owners of other teams would reach out to him to get some of the other colored players together for some competitions.”
After his athletic career ended, he became a firefighter for the city of Philadelphia and was eventually promoted to lieutenant with Engine Co. 45. From another news account unearthed by Johnson, whose nonprofit’s primary mission is to honor the history of pre-1950 African-American basketball players and their descendants:
“He was treated for smoke inhalation and exhaustion after an explosion and fire in South Philly. The boxing referee was the first to reach the four victims that day, but continued to work, despite the urgings of co-workers for him to take a rest.”
In 1972, at the behest of then-Philadelphia Mayor Frank Rizzo, Clayton was named director of the city’s gang control unit, a job that entailed trying to stem the crime and violence from Philly’s estimated 100 gangs and 5,000 gang members at the time. That same year, he was also appointed chairman of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission.
“We never knew this unless someone else told us,” Myers said. “Uncle Zack was a man of a few words. But when he spoke, he was firm and commanding. Mostly he was humble. He never really talked about his playing days. I grew up mostly knowing him as the boxing referee.”
He and Lunette were among the first black homeowners in Northwest Philadelphia’s tony Mt. Airy neighborhood. Clayton had a reputation as a dapper dresser — he owned several smoking jackets — and drove through Philly only in black Cadillacs. His last car was a two-door black coupe with the same personalized license plate he’d had for years: ZC-1. “I still have his raccoon fur coat,” Myers said.
If Clayton went strong to both his left and right on the court, he was best known for his work in the middle of the ring — especially the ending of two controversial fights he worked.
“I thought we were covered,” wrote Foreman in his 1995 autobiography, By George, describing his manager at the time, Dick Sadler, allegedly bribing Clayton. “Dick Sadler came to me for $25,000 to slip the referee under the table. I asked why. ‘Because,’ he said, ‘you’ve got a habit of hitting people when they’re down. I want to make sure he doesn’t disqualify you.’ I gave him the money because that’s how the game was played.”
Foreman said he never knew whether Clayton received the money, but Sadler, who died in 2003, shot down the allegation at the time. “He’s lying, and God and he knows it.”
“That was always a huge myth,” said Myers, who added that while her uncle bestowed his love of boxing on her, he never spoke about the controversy. “I never heard anything about that. That’s probably unfounded.”
Clayton was also a ringside judge who unfathomably scored a 1979 welterweight title fight between Carlos Palomino and Wilfred Benitez for Palomino, who lost by split decision because the other two judges had scored the exact opposite of Clayton.
Broadcasting for ABC, Howard Cosell, upon hearing the scoring, intoned, “I’d like to have a word with Mr. Clayton.”
Bob Arum, Benitez’s promoter, accused his rival Don King of trying to fix the fight. “We had heard rumors that Zack Clayton was under the influence of Don King and Bill Daley [King’s representative] and they wanted Palomino to win,” he said.
Clayton not only denied Arum’s charges — “If we’re such good friends, how come he [King] has never given me a fight to work?” Clayton said — he also sued him for defamation. Arum refused comment for this story.
Although Clayton worked with many kids through various city agencies, he had no children of his own, Myers said. His basketball career might have remained forgotten by the wider world if not for Johnson, who has lobbied to ensure that players from the Black Fives era are properly recognized.
Johnson knew something was amiss when he noticed that every member of the first class enshrined with Clayton in the Philadelphia Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989 (Wilt Chamberlain, Paul Arizin, Eddie Gottlieb, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Harry Litwack and Tom Gola) had also been inducted into Springfield — except for Clayton.
Monroe said he will talk about the man as much as the player Friday night in Springfield. The problem with having so many of the forgotten black pioneers, The Pearl said, is you learn more about a man in death than in life. “People always talk about me being a pioneer, but come on. I guess just like players who came after me want to know what I did, I’ve always been obsessed with finding out about the great players before me.”
And while Clayton is being recognized this weekend as a basketball player, his most famous moment in sports was when he stood over Big George Foreman in the sticky heat of an African dawn.
Ali’s right hand caught Foreman flush with barely 13 seconds left on the clock pictured for closed-circuit television viewers. Foreman’s body folded in half, taking almost two full seconds before his 6-foot-3, 220-pound physique hit the canvas with less than 11 seconds left.
Bill Sheridan, the television announcer, started his count at 3 while Clayton appeared to be at 2. Foreman was still rising when Clayton waved the fight off, as if the champion didn’t beat the count. But the clock on television was already at 0:00.
Which means one of three things:
- The round should have been over and Foreman allowed to return to his corner to clear his head for 60 seconds before the ninth round began.
- Foreman beat the count and should have been given time to recover.
- Clayton picked up the count at 3 and decided that Foreman already had his full 10 seconds to rise.
Regardless, waving the fight off just as Foreman stumbled to his feet produced one of the most dramatic knockouts in boxing history and immortalized Ali, who had lost his title seven years earlier because of his refusal to fight in Vietnam.
Clayton would referee 219 bouts and serve as a judge in 16 others between 1949 and 1984. One of his last fights was Ali’s sad farewell, a loss to Trevor Berbick in the Bahamas.
Born in 1913, deceased in 1997, Zachary Clayton is survived by his wife, Lunette Guess Clayton, and now — finally — a place in the Hall of Fame.