A circle closed in the history of basketball in America when John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs passed away on Jan. 26. Isaacs, 93, was the last living player for the Harlem Renaissance, the great all-black team in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.
I met Isaacs 39 years ago at my father’s funeral. My dad, Joe Lapchick, was the center on the Original Celtics basketball team and later coached the New York Knicks and St. John’s University. Dad had told me about the rivalry between the Celtics and the Rens. They started playing at a time when blacks and whites had not competed against each other. It is hard to imagine today when we look at the NBA’s being nearly 80 percent African-American and Division I college basketball’s being nearly 67 percent African-American. But this was the case when the Rens and the Celtics played against each other.
They decided in the 1920s that they would play against each other to break those barriers, and the game was never the same. No white team could beat the Celtics, and no black team could beat the Rens. Their rivalry was so profound that the Basketball Hall of Fame inducted both teams. At the time, they were the only two teams in the Hall of Fame other than the team that first played the game. It was not until the Globetrotters were inducted almost 40 years later that another team was admitted.
I had never met any of the Rens. At my father’s wake in 1970, I noticed five elderly black gentlemen sitting together in the funeral home. I approached them, and Bob Douglas, the owner of the Rens and one of my father’s closest friends, said to me, “Richard, I am Bobby Douglas. I was with the Rens.” Of course, I knew who he was, and we embraced as my father had embraced Charles “Tarzan” Cooper before each and every game. I will say more about that later. With Douglas was Isaacs, one of the stars of the Rens when they won the world championship in 1939. When the Knicks won the NBA championship in 1969-70, led by Willis Reed, Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier and Earl Monroe, the New York press called it “New York’s first world basketball championship.” In fact, the New York Rens had won this honor nearly three decades earlier. After the Rens faded in the early 1940s, Isaacs won a second world championship as a star on the all-black Washington Bears in 1943.
I spoke at the induction of the Original Celtics into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame a number of years ago. Isaacs was in the audience. My speech did not reflect the legend of the Celtics, which was well known to the crowd. Instead, I made most of my remarks about the Rens. I told the audience that my father consistently told me that they were the Celtics’ equals and that on any given night, either team could win.
The Rens won in spite of the shackles of racism of the society in which they played. They traveled about America in a luxury bus Douglas bought for them. He did this because he knew many hotels would not accommodate African-Americans, so they slept on this bus. When the Celtics bought dinner at their favorite restaurants, they would watch their friends from the Rens team take food to the bus, knowing they would not be served in those same restaurants. On three occasions, they left town in tandem, the Celtics following the Rens’ bus in their cars. On three occasions when they pulled into gas stations, Dad saw a man come out with a rifle, chasing away this group of African-American players from his lily-white pumps.
During several games, all in the Midwest, race riots took place when angry fans stormed the court. Owners of the arenas where violence was threatened would build nets around the courts to protect players so that fans could not get to them. This was actually the origin of the term “the net game,” which most people assumed came about because of the net under the rim.
Cooper and my father would not shake hands before each game. Instead, they embraced because they wanted the fans to know that for these Celtics and these Rens, this was not simply about a Hall of Fame basketball game but also about their vision for what America could someday become.
I spoke with Isaacs in the fall after Barack Obama was elected president. He told me that when he played, he “never thought I would live to see the day that basketball would be integrated, there would be black coaches of NBA teams, general managers, team presidents and now even an owner. Those things were fulfilling for me, but nothing has shown me more than the progress of America on the issue of race than when we elected Barack Obama.”
I am glad he lived to see it. What he missed, however, was being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Seven of his Rens teammates have made it, including Cooper and William “Pop” Gates individually, and the 1932-33 Rens team, which brought in Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Johnny Holt, Eyre Saitch, Willie Smith and Bill Yancey. After Isaacs joined the Rens in 1936, they had records of 122-19, 121-19 and 127-15 leading up to the 1939 world championship.
Isaacs has been in the mix for induction a few times in recent years. I was disappointed that he did not make it as a finalist for this year’s induction into the the Basketball Hall of Fame. I hope the selectors will finally induct another pioneer in 2010. Isaacs never left the game and taught it to kids for 50 years until the end of his journey at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in New York. The 93-year-old legend suffered a stroke at the club while teaching the kids 11 days before he passed. Isaacs, who was born in Panama in 1915 and grew up in the United States, remained a world champion to the kids. The Hall of Fame could allow all of America to see the champion up close.
Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management graduate program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. Lapchick also directs UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of 13 books and the annual Racial and Gender Report Card, and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular commentator for ESPN.com on issues of diversity in sports.