Remembering the Rens

In the midst of March Madness, a look back at the heyday of all-black professional basketball and a legendary showdown that changed the face of the game.

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nyrens
Courtesy of the Chicago Defender

True, there are plenty of basketball stories right now amid March Madness and the ever-tightening races for playoff position in the NBA. But there’s an important addition that should not be overlooked. This weekend marks the 70th anniversary of a landmark event in basketball.

On March 28, 1939, the New York Renaissance, an all-black professional team, defeated the all-white Oshkosh All Stars in the World Professional Basketball Tournament at the Chicago Coliseum. This took place several years before the formation of the National Basketball Association, when there were many loose assemblages of professional teams, some white and some black. The black teams were typically known as Black Fives, for the five players on the court. The African-American circuit was a close parallel to the Negro Leagues of Baseball. But in baseball, there was never a true World Series between a then all-white team like the New York Yankees and an all-black powerhouse like the Homestead Grays or Kansas City Monarchs. That distinction belongs to basketball.

There had been many self-proclaimed, world basketball champions in the game’s first four decades, but the organizers of the World Professional Basketball Tournament wanted to gather the best teams from the various circuits to anoint a true champion. Organizers invited 11 teams and seeded them in a single-elimination format. The Rens, a powerhouse team that had won 110 games and lost only seven all year, stormed through the early rounds. Their only stiff challenge came from the Harlem Globetrotters, which were, at that time, a traditional basketball team rather than circus entertainment. (I mean that nicely. I’m a huge Cirque Du Soleil fan.) The Rens defeated the Globetrotters in the semifinals 27-23; then downed the Oshkosh squad 34-25.

The Rens, founded in 1923, were led by future Hall of Famers, William “Pop” Gates and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper. The squad also featured John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs, who has been a finalist in consideration for the Hall of Fame in recent years. Isaacs invented the pick-and-roll play, which is now a staple of nearly every basketball offense. The Rens were nationally known in basketball circles, but prior to 1939, they could only win “colored basketball titles.” Isaacs famously used a razor blade to cut the word “colored” out of his championship jacket.

The Rens victory set in motion a series of changes in professional basketball. Other black teams won the tournament in 1940, ’42 and ’43. In ’42, the National Basketball League added 12 black players to their rosters. All-white teams in other circuits also integrated. By the time Jackie Robinson, who played on a Black Five team after graduating from UCLA, broke the color line in baseball in 1947, integrated basketball teams were commonplace.  

While the Negro Leagues of baseball have a large and deservedly devoted following, the Black Fives era fell from sight, until 10 years ago when a marketer and historian named Claude Johnson began to unearth their glorious history. At the time, Johnson worked for the NBA, which had just put out a book celebrating the league's 50th anniversary.

The league’s official guide mentioned only two black teams, the Rens and the Globetrotters; but Johnson had read Arthur Ashe’s Hard Road to Glory: A History of the African-American Athlete (Amistad), which listed several teams and a wide variety of players. Johnson began reading microfilm of the black newspapers from the first part of the 20th century and found a treasure trove of information. He learned, for example, that Dr. Edwin Henderson, a Harvard-trained physical education teacher, introduced the game of basketball in Washington D.C. in 1904, and by 1907 there were organized games between all-black teams from different cities. In 1908, the Brooklyn-based Smart Set Athletic Club won the first Colored World Basketball Championship. The circuit thrived for four decades after that with leading athletes from other sports such as Paul Robeson, who was an all-American football player at Rutgers University, before becoming a renowned performer and activist, participating in the games.          

In 2003, Johnson formed Black Fives, a sports apparel company that gives some of the proceeds to the descendants of the players from that era. He maintains a blog dedicated to African-American sports history at the company’s Web site, too.

In the midst of March Madness, it is worth pausing to remember one of the most overlooked chapters in African-American history and American sports history. The Rens dominated professional basketball in their time. They went 2588-539 during their 26 years, a remarkable record. Imagine your favorite NBA team averaging 69 wins a season for 26 years. Sounds like madness, doesn’t it?

Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.

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