When the first all-black professional basketball team dominated … back in the ’20s
‘They were literally pioneers and recognized that they were making a statement in front of the audiences.’
Monday was the 94th anniversary of one of the greatest basketball teams to ever lace up.
Though the New York Renaissance, the first all-black professional basketball team, played, dominated and was shuttered all before the NBA was born doesn’t mean the Rens didn’t leave a lasting impact on the game. Oh, no. Over its nearly three-decade existence, the team amassed a 2,588-529 record, including a season when the team won 112 out of 120.
“They were literally pioneers and recognized that they were making a statement in front of the audiences,” Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of the Sport in Society, told NBA.com. “And there were some audiences that didn’t like that statement.”
Former UCLA coach and Hall of Famer John Wooden, who played against the Rens while on the Indianapolis Kautskys in the 1930s, raved about them: “To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball. They had great athletes, but they weren’t as impressive as their team play. The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then, and I believe it would be today.”
The Renaissance was a product of Bob Douglas, the “Father of Black Basketball” and the first black person inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Besides creating the Rens, Douglas made his chops organizing the Spartan Braves and Spartan Hornets in Harlem, New York, and having those teams play against a mixed group of competition for four years from 1919 to 1923. When Douglas wasn’t able to keep players amateurs because they had received money participating in other sports, he decided to move into the professional game.
With the opening of Harlem’s Renaissance Casino in 1922, Douglas had an avenue to create his team — the casino wanted publicity and Douglas wanted a venue for his team to practice and play home games, so a mutually beneficial relationship was born.
Fans of the team in the 1920s became well acquainted with players such as Hall of Famer Chuck “Tarzan” Cooper, one of basketball’s best centers, Frank Forbes, Harold “Fat” Jenkins, Leon Monde and “Wee” William Smith.
“People called my father the first great big man in basketball,” said Lapchick, the son of Celtic great Joe Lapchick, to NBA.com. “He said Cooper would play him one-on-one as absolute equals.”
These were names that would soon become stars. The Rens played in the center of the Harlem community at the cross of 137th Street and Seventh Avenue. Fans could spend part of their afternoon watching an athletic competition and turn around to dance.
“It was twofold: People came to see the team and came to dance,” said former Rens player and roommate of Hall of Famer Pop Gates, John Isaacs. “Once the game was over, people stayed. It was like, ‘Let’s go back to dancing.’ ”
The Rens were constantly on the move — playing games almost every day and doubling their games up on Sunday. Besides that, New York was not picky about who the team played, competing against amateur, semipro and other professional teams, including the team to beat, the Original Celtics. The Celtics and Rens could command especially large crowds, with as many as 15,000 patrons filling out the stands.
Joe Lapchick’s playing experience against the all-black squad had a significant influence on his tenure as head coach of the New York Knicks. He would go on to sign Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, the first African-American to sign an NBA contract.
Though Joe Lapchick, through his relationship with Douglas, was well aware of the racism players of color experienced and changed, the leagues were not and would not. The American Basketball League refused accept the Rens into its league in 1925. Joe Lapchick’s former team, the Original Celtics, in a show of solidarity, refused to join the league. Ironically, as a result of the Great Depression, the league was shuttered while the Rens were at the peak of their success.
New York won the world basketball championships over the Original Celtics. This was also the same season (1932-33) when the team lost only eight of its 120 games and had an 88-game winning streak, which doubled the Celtics’ record of 44.
As a result of the Rens’ success, another all-black team was able to form and gain prominence. In 1927, the Harlem Globetrotters were founded by Abe Saperstein as a team focused on entertaining and amazing the crowd with their handles. The two teams each had a different focus, though, so there wasn’t a great deal of competition for the territory they had carved out.
“It wasn’t so much a rivalry because it was a different type of operation,” said Isaacs. “Theirs was entertainment and ours was straight basketball. We didn’t play them that often.”
There were times with the two squads squared off, and they were often memorable occasions, such as when New York defeated Harlem, 27-23, in the third round of the 1939 world basketball tournament in Chicago. The Rens would win the whole thing, beating the Oshkosh All-Stars, 34-25.
It would only take a year for the Globetrotters to avenge the playoff loss, when Duke Cumberland found the bottom of the net on half-court prayer and gave the team the 27-36 victory. Joe Lapchick tried to help integrate the game even more when he approached the Basketball Association of America owners with the idea of allowing the Rens in. They too rejected the idea.
In 1949, Saperstein gained control of the Rens and used them as an opening act for the Globetrotters. The following year, New York was disbanded.
“I was raised hearing that the Celtics were the greatest team of all time,” said Richard Lapchick. “My dad’s friends would say that and all our neighbors would say that. But he would correct them and say, ‘The Rens were every bit as good as we were in the beginning and were better than us in the end.’ “