Johnny Kline, a forward for the Harlem Globetrotters in the 1950s who spent much of the sixties addicted to heroin before becoming a drug abuse counsellor 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.
Mr. Kline was a 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.
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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. Mr. Kline recalled that the team was denied rooms at hotels and service at restaurants.
“We did a lot of barrier-busting,” he told The Detroit News in 1997. “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.”
Mr. Kline tried out for the Detroit Pistons in 1957 but was cut before the NBA 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.
Mr. Kline returned to the hard court during the 1960-61 season, playing in Pennsylvania for the Sunbury Mercuries of the Eastern Professional Basketball League. But the sixties proved to be a lost decade, as he struggled with a drug addiction that occasionally left him homeless.
“I was a stinking, drugged-out dope fiend,” Mr. Kline wrote in Never Lose (1996), his autobiography. “People who knew me would cross the street to avoid seeing me.”
His daughter Ms. Hill said in an interview: “He was in and out of our lives. He would come and go, but my mother would protect us and support him.”
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 doctorate 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 Mr. 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 plant, and his mother, Rose (Jackson) Kline, was a homemaker. But he was raised largely by an aunt and uncle.
The Globetrotters had several stars, but many other players fell into obscurity and poverty. Mr. Kline’s teammate Ruben Bolen ended up homeless and was stabbed to death in 1995.
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Inspired by Mr. Bolen’s death, Mr. Kline formed the Black Legends of Professional Basketball Foundation to bring recognition to the game’s often-forgotten pioneers and raise money for them.
In addition to Ms. Hill, he leaves eight other children and extended family.