Johnny Kline, a forward for the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1950s who spent much of the ’60s addicted to heroin before becoming a drug abuse counselor and later an advocate for long-forgotten black basketball players, died on July 26 at his home in Lebanon, Tenn. He was 86.
His daughter Sharon Hill confirmed the death.
Kline was a high-leaping 6-foot-3 star nicknamed Jumpin’ Johnny at Wayne University (now Wayne State University) in Detroit, but his poor grades led him to drop out in 1953. He soon joined the Globetrotters, the basketball troupe whose deft mixture of great athleticism and high jinks made them popular around the world. Kline augmented the antics of the team’s inventive clowns with his pure basketball skills.
But the all-black Globetrotters faced obstacles caused by racism that were familiar to other black athletes in the 1950s, as sports organizations adapted slowly to integration. Kline recalled that the team was denied rooms at hotels and service at restaurants, even though they sometimes drew more fans than the N.B.A. teams in whose arenas they played. They were treated far better when they played in Europe and Asia.
“We did a lot of barrier-busting,” he told The Detroit News in 1997, referring to the team’s tribulations in the United States. “We confronted the Jim Crow system, and did it with dignity, respect and style. We brought a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of people.”
Kline tried out for the Detroit Pistons in 1957 but was cut before the N.B.A. season started. He continued to play for the Globetrotters through 1959 but left, in part because of his continued frustrations with the racism he encountered. Along the way he became interested in the teachings of Elijah Muhammad and the Nation of Islam, his son Benjamin Daniels said.
Kline returned to the hardcourt during the 1960-61 season, playing in Pennsylvania for the Sunbury Mercuries of the Eastern Professional Basketball League, a rung below the N.B.A. But the ’60s proved to be his lost decade, as he struggled with a drug addiction that occasionally left him homeless.
“I was a stinking, drugged-out dope fiend,” Kline wrote in “Never Lose” (1996), his autobiography. “People who knew me would cross the street to avoid seeing me.”
His daughter Sharon said in a telephone interview: “He was in and out of our lives. He would come and go, but my mother would protect us and support him.” Her mother, Dorothy Daniels-Morton, Kline’s first wife, would let him stay in her home long after their divorce.
After about eight years he recovered, and he soon resumed his education at Wayne State, where he received bachelor’s and master’s degrees before earning a Ph.D. in education. He would become known less as Jumpin’ Johnny Kline than as Dr. John Kline.
He also began a new career, as director of a methadone program beginning in the early 1970s. In 1986 he was named the director of education and substance abuse for the City of Detroit’s health department and soon after was appointed to Michigan’s nursing board.
He said his own addiction and recovery had made him well-suited for work in curbing substance abuse.
“Those experiences created the person I became,” he told the Wayne State alumni magazine in 2008. “I had to go through those fires and become who I am today. It was hell.”
Mannie Jackson, a former Globetrotter who bought the team in 1993 and sold his remaining holdings in it 20 years later, said of Kline in a telephone interview, “His greatest accomplishment was his comeback, and he was so concerned about helping others come back.”
John Lee Kline Jr. was born in Detroit on Nov. 18, 1931. His father worked at a Ford Motor Company plant, and his mother, Rose (Jackson) Kline, was a homemaker. But he was raised, he said, largely by an aunt, Rea Ferguson, and her husband, James Colvard, who took him to Negro leagues baseball games and Globetrotters games in the 1940s.
“My mother was always nearby, but it was my aunt who kept our family together,” he said in an interview for the television program “Just Men.”
His interest in baseball, especially the Detroit Tigers, came first. But he played basketball at Northeastern High School — where his jumping ability made him a particularly strong rebounder — and was offered a scholarship to Wayne University. He also joined its track and field team, setting a school record in the triple jump (sometimes called the hop, step and jump) and competed in the trials before the 1952 Summer Olympics.
But devoting so much time to the basketball and track teams hurt his grades, making him academically ineligible to remain on the team. He left college and, through a basketball coach in Detroit, learned of a tryout in Chicago for the Globetrotters. Invited to join the team, he signed, with some reluctance, a contract for a modest salary of $400 a month (about $3,750 today).
The Globetrotters had several stars, among them Meadowlark Lemon, Marques Haynes, Goose Tatum and, briefly, Wilt Chamberlain. But many others who played for the Globetrotters and other all-black barnstorming teams like the New York Renaissance and the Washington Bears fell into obscurity and poverty. Ruben Bolen, who played with Kline on the Globetrotters, ended up homeless and was stabbed to death in San Francisco in 1995.
Inspired by Bolen’s death, Kline formed the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation, a small organization dedicated to bringing recognition to the game’s often-forgotten pioneers, raising money for them through annual banquets and urging the N.B.A. and the Globetrotters to establish pensions for them. The N.B.A. offers pensions only to its early generation of black players.
“None of these guys who started professional basketball were being recognized and given any dignity or respect for their contributions,” Kline told The Williamson Herald, in Franklin, Tenn., in 2009.
He also helped in the campaign to elect Haynes to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1998 and was cited in a congressional resolution passed in 2005 to recognize the history of the African-American players who played before the N.B.A. or with the Globetrotters.
In addition to Ms. Hill and Mr. Daniels, he is survived by four other daughters, Britt Thomas, Cheryl Thomas, Terry Dennis and Kelly Mack; three other sons, John Kline III, Michael Kline and Alan Daniels; his brother, Ronald Colvard; 22 grandchildren; and 28 great-grandchildren.
Ben Green, the author of “Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters” (2005), said that Kline’s post-Globetrotter achievements had distinguished him from others known chiefly for what they did on the court.
“Some people, like Meadowlark, could never get past being a Globetrotter,” he said in a telephone interview. “But Johnny used his credibility as a Globetrotter to make a real difference in his community.”
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