This upcoming weekend (Saturday) marks the 70th anniversary of a historically important milestone for African Americans in professional basketball.

NY Times headline, Rens win

The New York Times rarely mentioned African American basketball teams but issued this update about the Rens title.

On March 28, 1939, the New York Renaissance (a.k.a. “Rens”), an all-black team, defeated the Oshkosh All Stars to win the championship title in the inaugural World Professional Basketball Tournament at the Chicago Coliseum.

Oshkosh had reached the championship of the whites-only National Basketball League for two straight years.

The Rens’ lineup for the 1939 tournament included future Basketball Hall of Fame members William “Pop” Gates and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, as well as William “Wee Willie” Smith, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Eyre Saitch, Zach Clayton, John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs, and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins.

That lineup was good for 122 wins, against only 7 defeats for the 1938-39 season.

Smith, Saitch, Clayton, and Jenkins were in the lineup of the 1933 Rens team that was enshrined into the Hall of Fame as a unit in 1963.  They won won 88 straight games in a span of 86 days during that epic 1932-33 season.

New York Rens players in the lobby of the Hotel Grand in Chicago

The morning after: New York Rens players in the lobby of the Hotel Grand in Chicago after winning the World Pro Basketball Tournament title, before boarding their team bus for the journey back home. Standing (l. to. r.): Eric Illidge, traveling secretary; Gates, Cooper, Smith, Isaacs. Seated (l. to. r.): Bell, Clayton, Jenkins, Saitch.

The Rens beat the Oshkosh All Stars even though Cooper (at 6′-5″) and Smith (at 6′-4″) fouled out of the game in the second half.

In their typical on court style, the Rens piled up an early lead, then played stifling inside defense, forcing opponents into lower percentage perimeter shots.  Then the smothering, disruptive defensive quickness of the Rens guards took over, causing even more erratic shooting, or turnovers.

Under these conditions, Oshkosh trailed the Rens 24-11 at halftime and couldn’t make up the difference.

“Seldom do I get nervous during basketball game in which the New York Renaissance Five is playing,” said Rens owner Robert Douglas afterward.  Douglas himself was enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1972.

“What a team!,” gushed the Chicago Defender.

The Rens victory paved the way for the racial integration of professional basketball within a few short years.