By Claude Johnson
(An abbreviated version of this piece was published in the 2015 Enshrinement Weekend Yearbook of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.)
J ohn William Isaacs, aka “Boy Wonder,” a bruising, powerfully built 6′-3″, 190 lb. guard, was a star player with numerous African American basketball teams during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. He won World Championship of Professional Basketball titles with the New York Rens and Washington Bears in 1939 and 1943, respectively. Earlier this year, John was elected for enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
His unceasingly fierce, fiery, feisty playing style and matching personality were John’s legendary trademarks; these characteristics not only enabled his success but also were products of the times.
John arrived in America at the Port of New York from Banes, Cuba via the Cuban port city of Antilla in the country’s Oriente province aboard the American steamer S.S. Munamar on Saturday, September 27, 1919, just three days before his fourth birthday.
Making the journey along with John was his mother, Maud, and his six-year-old sister, Carmen. They arrived in style. The Munamar, a 370-foot vessel with 50 first-class and 30 second-class accommodations, was “specially constructed for luxurious passenger travel in the tropics” and was equipped with “storerooms for meats, vegetables, fish, wines and beer that are refrigerated.”
Four years later the father of future New York Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm would make the same voyage aboard the same ship on his way to the same United States port.
Nevertheless, it was a risky trip; they had sailed through the Caribbean in the middle of hurricane season just days after the tragic West Indian Hurricane of September 6-14, 1919. The storm caused destruction as far away as Texas. Cuba herself had been struck and “considerable damage was done along the northwest coast.” On September 9, the hurricane, with winds reaching 60 miles per hour, caused the sinking of the Spanish steamship Valbanera on its approach to the harbor at Havana; 400 passengers and 88 crew members “must have perished.”
John, his mother, and his sister were processed through the Ellis Island Immigration Station. The Munamar’s ship manifest showed that Maud was born in Constant Spring, Jamaica, though later documents list her birthplace as Panama. They would soon be reunited with their patriarch, Percival Alexander Isaacs, who, with $100 in his pocket, had sailed to New York City four months earlier. According to his immigration papers, Percival was born in Manchester, Jamaica and was listed as a mechanic, though he eventually became a painter. These valuable skills allowed Percival to find a job, secure an apartment in Harlem, and save up to send for his family. He also filed a petition for naturalization to become a United States citizen.
Why were they on the move? During the early 1900s, Jamaica’s plantation owners began importing contract laborers from Asia to drive down wages. Many locals, including Percival, sought better pay and new opportunities in other countries. Panama was high on the list, because labor was in demand to build the Panama Canal. That is where he met Maud, while both of them were working on the gigantic new canal. They were married in 1911 – Percival was 25 years old, Maud was 20 – and both of their children were born there; Carmen in 1912 and John in 1915.
Meanwhile, Cuba’s powerful sugar estates handled their own labor “struggles” by instigating the Race War of 1912, which displaced from their jobs thousands of Afro Cuban workers who had been fighting for better employment conditions. Eager to replace them, the industry recruited West Indian workers from abroad with the promise of improved conditions. It was perfect timing for Percival, Maud, and their children because as the Panama Canal neared completion in the early 1910s, jobs had begun to dwindle. Adventurous by necessity, his parents made John unafraid to go where the money is. “Jamaicans living in Panama also heard that sugar companies in Cuba were offering wages that would provide them with financial independence,” writes historian Philip A. Howard in Black Labor, White Sugar: Caribbean Braceros and Their Struggle for Power in the Cuban Sugar Industry. “In fact,” Howard continues, “once they discovered that they were preferred over other ethnic workers, particularly black Cubans and Haitians, to fill the most skilled craft jobs in the mills and on the farms, they flocked to Camagüey and Oriente.”
That’s how the Isaacs family got to Banes, Cuba. Banes was a production hub for sugar and bananas located in the fertile Oriente region on the northeastern coast of Cuba. It was a “company town” dominated by the American-owned United Fruit Company, a predecessor to Chiquita Brands. They probably lived in the town’s barrio Jamaiquino, the racially segregated Jamaican quarter that, according to Philip A. Howard, “contained hundreds of foreign contracted workers and their families.” Years later, Banes was the site of the wedding of Fidel Castro in 1948, and would become the subject of considerable attention from the United States Central Intelligence Agency in 1962 as a suspected launch site during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
The day after John’s arrival in America, a mob of several thousand whites in Omaha, Nebraska assaulted and burned the county courthouse, lynched its African American prisoner, and then rampaged through the city’s black neighborhoods, attacking its residents while destroying their homes and businesses.
OMAHA HAS WILD NIGHT UNDER MOB RULE; NEGRO BURNED, MAYOR HANGED
That’s what the Rock Island (Illinois) Argus had to say about the scene in its headline of September 29, 1919. Sadly, this had become routine. During the four months since Percival got to the United States, there had been 32 instances of mob violence against African Americans throughout the country—an average of two per week—each with fatalities, and each worse than Omaha. So many of these bloody attacks took place during this period that James Weldon Johnson, the well-known author, educator, composer, and civil rights activist, termed it the Red Summer of 1919.
This violence was the result of a backlash caused by white resentment not only toward African Americans who were migrating by the tens of thousands to Northern industrial cities from the South, and thereby competing for postwar jobs, but also over the improved social stature and confidence of black veterans returning from World War I.
In peaceful Keokuk, Iowa, the all-caps headline in the July 29, 1919 issue of its local newspaper, The Daily Gate City and Constitution Democrat, read, “NINETEEN DEAD IN BLACK AND WHITE WAR.”
“RACE RIOTS ARE SWEEPING THE COUNTRY” read the front-page banner in the Kansas City Sun a few days later.
Yet, in the face of these headlines, Percival, who was a certain kind of man, still felt confident enough to send for his wife and young children.
Though his Dad stood 5′-6” and his mother measured only 5′-4”, John zoomed to over six feet tall and his athleticism developed early. He always loved to run. As a kid, John would chase the coal truck after its delivery to their building for blocks on end to collect whatever fell off the back until gathering enough to make a difference back home. The Isaacs’s lived at 2100 Fifth Avenue, at West 129th Street, in a six-story elevator apartment house on the northwest corner known as Harwarden Hall. It could accommodate 38 families, with rents ranging from $600 to $1,200 per year for four to eight rooms with a bath.
Though both their parents were fluent in Spanish, John and his sister Carmen were instructed never to use it. For immigrants in Harlem, just like everywhere else, assimilation was the key. Their neighborhood included many ethnicities, but that diversity also brought friction. Fifth Avenue was the dividing line between predominantly Hispanic and black Harlem on the west side of the street and East Harlem, which was heavily Italian, on the east side of Fifth. Non-Italians were warned not to cross Fifth Avenue into East Harlem or risk getting into a fight. “Every neighborhood had a gang and every neighborhood had a sports team,” recalls Michael Lentini in East Harlem Remembered: Oral histories of Community and Diversity. John was a good kid, but that’s where he learned how to fight; he also learned how to compete as an athlete, and he earned major respect in both arenas.
As a teenager, John attended Textile High School (now the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex) on West 18th Street in the Chelsea section of Manhattan, a comprehensive trade school that had its own fabric mill in the basement. He was drawn toward basketball, and toward the team’s head coach, Simon Goldstein, who was a master tactician. “Coach Goldstein, come what may, always turns out a well-drilled, tenacious squad,” said the 1935 Textile High School yearbook. “On the court, this team moves with machine-like precision, and with a varied assortment of trick plays, rings up basket after basket.”
John’s skills were masterful as well. He was a natural. “They say that Dolly King, of Alexander Hamilton, in Brooklyn, will be one of the outstanding candidates for the center position of the All-Scholastic basketball team this year, though us experts will certainly have plenty of headaches, deciding between him and John Isaacs of Textile, who plays a more polished game than any of the high school ball hawks we’ve seen in a long time,” wrote the New York Age in February 1935.
Textile went on to win the 1934-35 city Public School Athletic League senior high school basketball championship, with a defeat of New York City powerhouse and defending city P.S.A.L. champion DeWitt Clinton High School, which featured future Syracuse University and New York Rens star Wilmeth Sidat-Singh. Meanwhile, John, still only a junior, beat out Dolly, a future star with Long Island University, the Rens, and the Washington Bears, for All-Scholastic honors. Though deeply competitive, Dolly, Wilmeth, and John became friends through the P.S.A.L. and would eventually be teammates on the 1941-42 Bears.
Following a successful 1935-36 season, Textile lost in the city P.S.A.L. playoffs, to a Benjamin Franklin High School team featuring future Basketball Hall of Fame member William “Pop” Gates and Arlington “Ollie” Edinboro, who would become a long time New York City Parks and Recreation director and a protégé of Holcombe Rucker. According to the New York Age, John, who again won All-Scholastic honors, did not play in that game, since he was “ruled ineligible under the new age limit.” However, he and Pop later became teammates on the Rens and the Bears, winning World Pro Basketball titles with both teams.
Being ineligible had its perks. Well before graduation, “Johnny Isaacs” was playing with the St. Peter Claver Penguins, a Brooklyn-based “colored” team that featured Clarence “Puggy” Bell, a future Rens teammate. In the fall of 1936 he appeared with the New York Collegians, another all-black team, with local all-stars that included Louis “Lou” Badger and Charles Isles, who both later became John’s teammates on the Rens.
These brief stints not only proved John could play at the next level but caught the eye of future Basketball Hall of Fame member Robert “Bob” Douglas, the Rens owner. “Observed by Manager Douglas in a preliminary game he got a contract with the Rens after one trial workout,” the Hammond (Indiana) Times reported in 1939. It was reportedly a three-year deal. Years later, even after signing a generation of other basketball stars, Bob would say, “Isaacs had the most natural ability of any man ever to play for me.”
Before signing with the Rens at the end of December 1936, the 21-year-old first had to get permission from his mother. That’s because Bob had made an epic change to his business paradigm: for the 1936-37 season, the Rens would play all of their games on the road. The Great Depression had taken its toll on Harlem, and Bob knew that the Rens could draw bigger crowds elsewhere as the visiting team. John was the last key piece Bob needed to make his plan complete. It would mean that her son would be gone for months, but for Maud Isaacs, it helped to know that John would be making a guaranteed salary of $125 per month, including medical expenses and meals. This was a profound wage, at a time when a four-room apartment might cost $50 per month.
According to historian Susan Rayl, a professor with the State University of New York at Cortland, Bob and his team began a four-month road trip immediately after John was signed. “The Rens tour included 32 games in as many cities in the 31 days of January,” she explains, and it took them to “small towns and large cities in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia, Illinois, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Iowa, and Missouri.” By the time they arrived back in Harlem for the team’s only home appearance of the season in April 1937, the Rens had played 110 games in 97 days, winning 102, and had “traveled 18,000 miles by bus, played to a total of 89,000 spectators, and averaged 800 per game.” 
One would think that during the Great Depression, in Jim Crow times, a barnstorming African American basketball team would have to fight their way into far off regions of the Midwest and the South. But exactly the opposite was true. Local promoters invited the Rens not only because fans wanted outstanding basketball action, hard-working families sought an entertaining diversion from their daily grind, and thrill-seekers craved the exotic novelty of seeing African Americans in athletic motion. They also saw the team as a mobile economic stimulus; people would come from miles around to spend money in bars, restaurants, shops, and hotels, as well as on side bets that backed their homegrown team within a given spread. Nevertheless, for strategic reasons, black teams still let white audiences know their race prior to arriving in town. Therefore, whenever the Rens were on the road they were billed in advance as “Colored World Champions.”
The tour included a first-ever five-game “World Series of Basketball” in February 1937, between the New York Rens and the Oshkosh All Stars, a top team in the whites-only National Basketball League, staged at various sites throughout Wisconsin. “It was a money-maker,” John recalled. According to the rookie player, the Rens were able to stay in hotels and eat at restaurants like everyone else. Still, according to John, their strategy was always the same. “Get 10 points as quickly as you could, because those were the 10 points the refs were gonna take away.” The overwhelming success of that series gave other promoters even bigger ideas; within two years the Chicago Herald-American would stage the World Championship of Professional Basketball, an invitational tournament for the top twelve pro teams in the country.
The team’s only home appearance of the season did not take place until April 1937. “Johnny Isaacs, a local boy, played his first game with the Rens before a home crowd,” the New York Age reported. “His playing was a pleasure to watch. Big and fast, he handles himself with the greatest of ease, playing the ball off the backboard well, never making a bad pass or taking a foolish shot. He’s a player to be watched.”
(This concludes Part 1 of my 2-part article on John Isaacs. An abbreviated version of this piece was published in the 2015 Enshrinement Weekend Yearbook of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Skip to Part 2.)
 Monthly Weather Review, September, 1919, p. 672
 The Loom, 1935 Textile High School Yearbook
 New York Age, 16 February 1935.
 New York Age, 26 February 1936.
 New York Age, 26 March and 28 October 1936.
 Hammond (Indiana) Times, 5 October 1939.
 Susan J. Rayl, The New York Renaissance Professional Black Basketball Team, 1923-1950. Dissertation, Pennsylvania State University.
 Author’s phone interview with John Isaacs, 2 March 2006.
 New York Age, 10 April 1937