Ex-Harlem Globetrotter 'tried to make a difference'
Long after he shot hoops as a barrier-breaking Harlem Globetrotter, John Kline devoted his life to helping others, whether children in Detroit or ensuring teammates secured a place in history.
“My dad was very selfless and he taught me to be that way. I learned giving from him,” said his daughter, Sharon Hill. “I learned you’re only as good as what you do for someone else.”
Mr. Kline died Thursday, July 26, 2018, in Lebanon, Tennessee, after declining health. He was 86.
Much of the Detroit native’s success is linked to the years he spent as a Globetrotter.
The renowned team drew fans before the NBA roster gained prominence, and Mr. Kline was inspired to join them after watching a game at Olympia Stadium with his father as a teen.
“I was about 13 or 14 years of age,” he told The Detroit News in 2002. “I was so excited, I came home after the game — it was about 10 o'clock — I ran into the house, got my basketball, came outside and my mother said, ‘Where are you going?’ And I had to go out and try to mimic some of the things I'd seen those guys do.”
After starring at Northeastern High School and being selected as an All-American at what was then Wayne University, Kline joined the Globetrotters in 1953.
He and the other players crisscrossed the country and traveled abroad. At a time when few blacks played professionally and racial segregation dominated areas, they sometimes faced overt racism, from being able to stay in Southern hotels to court-side clashes.
“There was a lot of hostility between black and white players," Kline called in 2000. “Opposing teammates would often call you a (obscenity) on the court, and there were always hecklers calling us monkeys and gorillas.”
Despite that, Mr. Kline, known as “Jumping Johnny,” awed audiences with his scoring, assisting, rebounds and steals.
“Johnny was the Michael Jordan of our generation,” said Ernest Wagner, his longtime friend and former teammate. “His hanging time — that’s a gift. I could practice and practice but I could never hang like him. He was exceptional.”
Mr. Kline remained on the team through 1959 and inspired others along the way.
“We did a lot of barrier busting. We confronted the Jim Crow system, and did it with dignity, respect and style,” he said in 1997. “We brought a lot of joy and happiness to a lot of people in this country.”
At one point, Kline wanted to play in the NBA and was in a Detroit Pistons camp but did not gain a spot at a time when the number of black players were limited, he later told The News.
More challenges were ahead. He spent about a decade addicted to heroin. Mr. Kline eventually recovered, returned to school at age 40 and earned his master’s and doctorate degrees, relatives said.
“Nothing slowed him, nothing discouraged him,” said Edith Clifton, a longtime friend. “He was always able to use whatever happened in his life and get over it and move on.”
After directing a methadone program, Mr. Kline also worked with a mayoral human resource committee and was appointed substance abuse director for the city of Detroit, according to his resumè.
“He was always willing to counsel any person when it came to drug addiction,” Hill said. “He was like a guru.”
Dismayed by the city’s dropout rates, Mr. Kline launched the Youth Athletic Enrichment Program, which helped youngsters through sports, tutoring, mentoring and academic lessons. It later received a $600,000 grant from the Skillman Foundation and, in the early 2000s, served about 2,000 students, The News reported.
“He had a particular passion for youth, inspiring them to be their personal best, not just in sports but life in general,” said Darlene House, who met him as a freelance journalist and acted as his publicist for some ventures. “He really tried to make a difference in people’s lives, in a lot of ways.”
That led to working to preserve the legacy of his fellow athletes.
After reading a newspaper report about a former player found slain, he launched the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation, which worked to honor the sport’s early pioneers. The group sponsored an annual fundraiser to honor senior players and establish a retirement plan.
“If he hadn’t been doing what he was doing, they wouldn’t have gotten the recognition,” Clifton said. “He was able to bring up the whole history of how great they were.”
Honors included induction into the WSU and Michigan sports halls of fame as well as the Harlem Globetrotter’s Legends Circle.
He also authored 15 books and played on a senior basketball league through his 70s, associates said.
“I always felt like my dad was on this quest to achieve, to never stop,” Hill said. “He made his life into a successful story.”
In more recent years, Mr. Kline enjoyed sharing his experiences through public speaking events and was slated to be featured in a documentary, his daughter said. “He stayed busy trying to make a difference and making a contribution to society to the end. He was still figuring out ways to make an impact.”
Besides his daughter, other survivors include eight other children, John Lee Kline III, Michael Kline, Benjamin Daniels, Alan Daniels, Cheryl Thomas, Terry Dennis, Kelly Mack and Britt Thomas; and a brother, Ronald Colvard.
He was predeceased by brothers Freddie Kline, Kenny Colvard, Joel Kline, Robert Kline and Gene Kline; and a sister, Beverly Averette.
A memorial service is planned for Aug. 25 at the Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers, Detroit.