Johnny Kline, who grew up in the rough-and-tumble east side of Detroit, starred in two sports at Wayne State, later traveled the world with the Harlem Globetrotters and overcome a decades-long battle with drugs and alcohol to eventually return to Wayne State to complete three degrees, died late last month. He was 87.
The Globetrotters made the announcement on Twitter on July 30, saying Kline had died over the previous weekend. An obituary from Sellars Funeral Services in Lebanon, Tenn., said he died July 26.
He was the oldest living Harlem Globetrotter.
A celebration of Kline's life is planned for the Northwest Activities Center, 18100 Meyers Road, on Aug. 25, starting at 10 a.m.
Kline, known as "Jumpin'" Johnny Kline for his high-jump prowess while an athlete at Wayne State, is a member of the Wayne State athletics Hall of Fame (Class of 1979) and the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame (Class of 2005).
Kline graduated from Detroit Northeastern in 1949 and went to Wayne State, where he lettered in basketball and track, was an All-American forward on the basketball team during the 1952-53 season, and also was the team's MVP that season. His 15.64 points a game still ranks ninth in program history, and his 13.167 rebounds ranks fifth.
In track and field, he set a Wayne State record in the hop, step and jump with a leap of 47 feet, 10 inches. His best high jump was 6-6 and seventh-eighths of an inch, earning him a spot in the finals for the 1952 Olympic trails.
After leaving Wayne State, Kline joined the Harlem Globetrotters, for whom he played from 1953-59 — he was part of the team that won the "World Series of Basketball" against a team of collegiate All-Americans in 1954, and the 1959 team that finished 441-0 — and was inducted into the legendary entertainment outfit's "Legends" ring in 2002, during a ceremony at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
The Globetrotters gig took Kline all over the world, where he met such dignitaries as Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. But the high life also contributed to a steep downfall. When he returned to Detroit, he struggled with drug and alcohol abuse.
"Since an early age, I've been drinking alcohol and smoking cigarettes — two drugs — because they were social things to do back then," Kline told Wayne State's alumni magazine for a spring 2008 profile. "I went on to marijuana. Then I moved on to inhaling and snorting harder drugs. Then one morning, I woke up and I was addicted. I had a habit to contend with and needed money to pay for it."
Kline said it got so bad, "People would cross the cross the street to avoid seeing me."
"I was wearing tattered clothes, I lost weight," Kline told the alumni magazine, adding he would miss his children's sporting events in search of drugs. "I was once a standout celebrity in the community who had a life very few could live at that time."
In 1969, Kline made the choice to get sober, which he remained until his death.
He returned to Wayne State to finish his bachelor's degree, accomplishing that in 1973. He then earned a master's in education in 1977, and a doctorate in education with an emphasis on mental health and law in 1985, according to the alumni magazine. Enormously proud, he loved being referred to "Doctor" in his later years.
Post-studies, Kline became a significant figure for several initiatives in Detroit and the state. In 1985, then-mayor Coleman Young named him the director of education and substance abuse for the city's health department, and he also worked to maintain Detroit's school's as drug-free zones. Then-Gov. James Blanchard appointed Kline to the state's board of nursing, with an emphasis on drug-abuse issues.
Kline was an administrator at Northville Psychiatric Hospital, and founded John Kline & Associations, a counseling consulting firm.
"Nobody in the country probably had as much experience with drugs than me," Kline, who had nine children, told the alumni magazine. "Those experiences created the person I became. I had to go through those fires and become who I am today.
"It was hell. On the same note, it's what created me.
"Lots of people addicted to drugs never come back."
Kline later penned 15 books, including autobiographies and even a text book, and founded both the Youth Athletic Enrichment Program for Detroit middle schools and the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation, the latter organization designed to recognize the game's pre-1960s pioneers — specifically, setting up retirement plans and garnering consideration for the Hall of Fame. Kline was inspired to found the BLPBF had read about a former basketball teammate who had been murdered. That teammate died homeless in San Francisco.
Kline was inducted into the Michigan Sports Hall of Fame in 2005, among a star-studded class that included William Clay Ford Sr. and George Perles.
"They told me just a few days ago," Kline told The News in March 2005, "and I was shocked." Kline was first nominated for the Michigan Sports HOF in 1999, and was disappointed each year when the class was unveiled and he wasn't on it.
He moved to Nashville, Tenn., in 2007, to live with daughter Sharon and son-in-law Dr. Melvin Lee Hill, and in 2011, he was honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame with the Human Spirit Award. That same year, he received an 80th birthday message from Queen Elizabeth II. He is a member of the African American Hall of Fame. Kline played basketball, in a five-on-five league, well into his 70s.