Andy was born in Franklinton, Louisiana in 1931. At an early age he watched his family work long dreadful hours in cotton fields that became his fate well. His father was estranged from his mother who suddenly died when Andy was only six years old. His oldest sister Mildred would eventually moved both of them to North Hollywood, California. The 1940’s witnessed a remarkable input of blacks migrating from the south to many northern states escaping the enforced segregation which denied blacks equalities. Mildred married Mr. Carl Cole and found work as a maid to the Hollywood stars. She, Andy and Carl were one the first black family to live in North Hollywood, California. Living in a white community void of southern segregation and racism gave Andy an opportunity not many Black Americans would experience during that era. He was also the first black student to attend North Hollywood High which was also void of overt racism. At this early age he discovered the game of basketball and became a gifted and an talent athletic. With this new found gift, Andy experienced something different, a social classism for talented athletes.
Eager to play ball at any cost, he would play in his bare feet on the streets of North Hollywood. It wasn’t until he made the varsity team in high school that his coach presented him with his first pair of basketball sneakers. He excelled quickly as a player forcing the school to change venues to see his amazing talents. One day while playing on a local court he was noticed by some college players who informed their college coach about this remarkable young athlete. Andy was immediately swift away to the University of Portland having no high school diploma in hand or any concept of college. He was the first African American to attend this university, the first to play basketball, and the first to break all school records in the game and the high jump. It was also the first time the Portland Ducks beat other major universities in the Pac 10. School records still stand to this very day. He was eventually inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame, 1991.
In 1953, in Andy’s junior year, the world famous Harlem Globetrotters came looking for this All American on the west coast. They signed him in his dorm room by enticing him with three hundred one dollar bills. He played for only a short season before being swooped away again to the United States Army. Once again his skills were quickly noticed while playing for the Fort Ord Army base team. He was finally discharged a year and a half with honorably distinction and returned to the World Famous Globetrotters which began their 4th European tour. He stood out amongst the greatest basketball players of his era setting his future for greater challenges and achievements ahead.
By 1958 his contract was sold to the Warriors, the NBA franchise Philadelphia, PA making him the third African American to play on a integrated team. Andy was noticed after he scored 37 points on the Los Angeles franchise during a College American game between the Globetrotters. While at Philadelphia he was known as the “Enforcer;” built like a prize fighter and known for protecting his teammates against other teams that set out to hurt his players with hard fouls. Chicago did not have a franchise team from 1949 to 1961, so Andy was on loaned to the new expansion team. The new Chicago Packers of 1962 witnessed this outstanding new player averaging over 14 points a game that season. He established this outstanding record in his first year giving all the local papers hopes of his return for the following season Especially after he scored 30 points in a pre season scrimmage.
However, next season witnessed a dispute between the owners of the Globetrotters, Abe Saperstien, and the NBA. Andy was a victim of this dispute. Once again he’s traded from one team, the Chicago Packers, to the new ABL franchise, Philadelphia Tapers. Unfortunately this league folded within the year forcing Andy moved again to a new professional league called the EBL which later became the Eastern League. Playing for the new Allentown Jets, Andy led them to many Championships. Some have said that the Allentown team could have easily beaten any NBA franchise team during that era. He played eight more years before finishing his career in basketball. With all the trades, cities and countries Andy encountered, it added to the experiences and challenges throughout his professional life.
Andy met an extraordinary woman in Chicago while playing for the Globetrotters in 1956. Barbara Billingslea was not only beautiful but extremely intelligent which was a perfect combination for both. She had three adorable children from a previous marriage that Andy adopted as his own. They married that year and together they parented three more children consolidating a beautiful family of three boys and three girls; Alvin, Ahtoi, LaLura, Andrew, Andra-Gina, and Mark. This home front was the emotional support Andy needed and it provided a sense of purpose that was essential for dealing with the pressure of integrating those early years of basketball. A true pioneer during those difficult times of racial adversity, he was continuously on display as the only African American who had played in every professional basketball league. He saw at first hand the differences between repression and fairness. A lesson he wanted his children to be able to distinguish between.
The legacy of his life will be remembered as one of the most important pioneer and poster child of American history in basketball between 1950-1960. Published in 2010, the book was released by Junior Cam Publishing Company own and operated by Mark Johnson. Basketball Slave, The Andy Johnson Harlem Globetrotter/NBA story is a fascinating account written by his youngest son Mark. They worked closely together while he was alive to document an accurate account on how the NBA finally institutionalized integration for the survival of the league we know today. While prior accounts omit the important role the Original Harlem Globetrotters played in the development of the NBA, Mark’s book rectifies this major discrepancy in Black History.
Andy passed on August 2002 before the book was released. We honor this man who traveled the world with the most recognized team in history, the 1950’s Globetrotters. Its history dates the civil rights movement by ten years and stands as another reminder of our country’s fight for racial equality. The disproportionate number of black players on these NBA teams changed as the gate attendances changed. We learned through this book how the “Ambassadors of Goodwill” helped in spreading joy and entertainment around the world as well as testing the discrimination policies in this country. Andy Johnson’s story tells the phenomenon journal of one man’s life in American history.