This is the greatest basketball team you have never heard of, a team so dominant that in one season it won 112 games and lost only seven. It was a team that won championships despite never being officially accepted professionally or socially. Yet, encountering obstacles on and off the court wasn’t anything new for the New York Renaissance, the first all-black professional basketball team. All the Rens did was win, and in the process they served as catalysts for social equality.
“They were literally pioneers and recognized that they were making a statement in front of the audiences,” said Richard Lapchick, director of Northeastern University’s Center for the Study of the Sport in Society. “And there were some audiences that didn’t like that statement.”
Or teams, for that matter. The Rens chose to let their on-court actions do the talking. In their nearly three-decade existence, beginning in 1922, the Rens compiled a 2,588-529 record.
“To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball,” said Hall of Fame coach John Wooden, who played against the Rens when he was a member of the barnstorming Indianapolis Kautskys during the ’30s. “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 Rens were the creation of Bob Douglas, known as the “Father of Black Basketball” at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Douglas started earning that reputation at age 25, when he organized two amateur basketball teams in Harlem called the Spartan Braves and Spartan Hornets. The Braves and Hornets competed against other New York City-area teams, both black and white, from 1919 to 1923. Douglas eventually became disenchanted with amateur basketball when he wasn’t allowed to keep players who had received money from playing other sports. It marked the beginning of the end for Douglas’ association with amateur basketball and the beginning of a new era — the birth of the Rens.
In 1923, Douglas cut a deal with the owners of Harlem’s Renaissance Casino, which opened in 1922. Douglas organized a group of black basketball players and agreed to call the team the Renaissance, providing the casino with publicity. In return, the casino allowed the team to practice and play home games at the epicenter of the “renaissance” of black artistic expression in Harlem, located at 137th Street and Seventh Avenue, during the ’20s. The Rens were another form of that expression in “New York’s Prettiest Dance Hall” — as advertised in the New York Amsterdam News — between dances and big bands, that is.
“It was twofold: People came to see the team and came to dance,” said John Isaacs, who played with the Rens from 1936-41 and roomed on the road with Hall of Famer Pop Gates, one of the nation’s finest all-around players. “Once the game was over, people stayed. It was like, ‘Let’s go back to dancing.’”
Whether they were home or on the road, the Rens maintained a hectic schedule throughout the year, often playing more than 120 games.
“We played every day and twice on Sunday,” said Jim Usry, a member of the Rens from 1946-51. “We played all over — Hartford, New Haven, Springfield. We’d play a road game in the afternoon and play back in New York that night.”
The Rens took on all comers, playing against semipro, black college and other professional teams, including the premier team of that era, the Original Celtics. Featuring Dutch Dehnert, Nat Holman and Joe Lapchick, the Celtics were known as extraordinary passers and showmen who revolutionized the way basketball was played.
The games featuring the Rens and Celtics were hot tickets, with some contests drawing as many as 15,000 fans. The games were hard fought and civil on the court, but off the court was a different story.
“There were race riots that took place during five of their games,” said Richard Lapchick, son of Celtics center Joe Lapchick. “But the players believed that they represented a game that was something special in their lives.”
The Rens of the ’20s featured such players as Frank Forbes, Harold “Fat” Jenkins, Leon Monde, “Wee” William Smith and Hall of Famer Chuck “Tarzan” Cooper, one of the game’s great centers.
“People called my father the first great big man in basketball,” said Richard Lapchick. “He said Cooper would play him one-on-one as absolute equals.”
Joe Lapchick would eventually become coach of the New York Knicks and was responsible for signing the first African-American to an NBA contract, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton. It was his relationship with Bob Douglas that taught Lapchick about racism in the United States.
“My father used to ask Bobby to go out for drinks all the time after games and Bobby would say, ‘No, no, no,’” said Richard Lapchick. “Finally, he realized why Bobby was saying no when, in 1926, he and Bobby had a conversation and Bobby said, ‘You’ve got to understand, Joe, the places that you want to take me to, I’m not welcome. And I don’t want to go in there and face the icy stare of racist white men.’”
Unfortunately, icy stares followed by harsher treatment were everyday occurrences for Douglas and the Rens, especially when they traveled.
“Sometimes you would sit at a restaurant counter, leafing through the menu,” said Isaacs, “and you didn’t see the man coming from behind the counter. And he sees you and walks to the wall and grabs his rifle and says, ‘Get out of here.’ You didn’t have any choice but to leave.”
The lack of acceptance extended to the American Basketball League, which refused to admit the Rens in 1925. As a show of support for the Rens, the Original Celtics refused to join the league. Later, when the ABL suspended operation in 1931 because of the Great Depression, the Rens enjoyed their greatest success as a team. In two seasons, the Rens defeated the Original Celtics for the world basketball championship and posted their best regular-season record in 1932-33, when they won 112 games while losing eight. That season, the Rens won 88 consecutive games, doubling the Celtics’ record of 44.
While the Celtics were the benchmark team throughout the ’20s, the Rens enjoyed that distinction during the ’30s, citing their competition against the Celtics as one of the reasons.
“The Rens learned a lot from the Celtics,” said Isaacs. “They played with their heads. And when we played other teams, we instituted a lot of their stuff — playing smart basketball, setting each other up.
“They were good teachers and, after a while, the student started taking it to the teacher. It didn’t matter when we played them. We knew we could beat them because we were in better condition than they were. We could run longer, run faster, jump higher.”
The Rens also had a financial incentive when playing against the Celtics in the ’30s.
“Every time we beat the Celtics on the road, depending on where we played, Douglas would take a look at the house and we would get an extra $50 that night or $25,” said Isaacs.
The success of the Rens helped pave the way for another all-black basketball team to emerge, the Harlem Globetrotters. Formed by Abe Saperstein in 1927, the Trotters established themselves as the clown princes of basketball, dazzling fans with their ballhandling and passing skills and on-court comedic tricks.
“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.”
When they did play, the games were memorable. The Rens defeated the Globetrotters 27-23 in the third round of the 1939 world professional basketball tournament in Chicago. The Rens would go on to win the tournament by defeating the Oshkosh All-Stars 34-25.
After the championship victory, Douglas purchased jackets for the team celebrating the triumph. The jacket read: “N.Y. Rens Colored World Champions.”
When Isaacs saw the inscription, he asked to borrow a razor blade from Douglas and then proceeded to meticulously remove the word “Colored” from the jacket.
Douglas responded, “You’re ruining the jacket.”
“No, I just made it real,” said Isaacs.
The Trotters did get their revenge the next year in the tournament, courtesy of a last-second, midcourt heave by Duke Cumberland to defeat the Rens 37-36.
Despite the overwhelming success on the court, professional leagues still wouldn’t admit the Rens. As coach of the Knicks in 1946, Joe Lapchick drove to Philadelphia and met with the Basketball Association of America owners. He hoped to persuade the nine men to admit the Rens as a 10th member. The request was denied.
As the ’50s approached, the basketball landscape had changed. The BAA had merged with the NBL and the Globetrotters were one of the sport’s top attractions, traveling all over the globe to play in front of sellout crowds.
“The Rens were the best and most popular traveling team that there had ever been in basketball, up to the point when the Globetrotters really came of age during the Goose Tatum and Sweetwater Clifton era,” said Marques Haynes, who began playing with the Trotters in 1946.
Saperstein would assume controlling interest of the Rens in 1949 and used them as a secondary club, having them play in the preliminary game before the Trotters performed. However, the double bill was short-lived as the Rens ended up disbanding that year, leaving the Trotters as the only all-black basketball team.
For the Rens, it was the end of nearly 30 years of groundbreaking achievement on and off the court. But the team had earned the right to be called one of the greatest — if not the greatest — pre-NBA teams.
“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.’”