Published January 31, 2009
In legacy, they sit at the head of the basketball table, while in life, they were almost always relegated to the back of the bus, and the rear of the restaurant, and denied service altogether at the local hotel.
They were one of professional basketball’s first great dynasties, formed a generation before the NBA came into existence. And for African-Americans, they were a source of pride, symbolic of the eternal struggle blacks faced in the United States. They were the New York Renaissance — the “Rens,” for short, named for the Harlem ballroom in which they played in the 1920s and ’30s. And amongst their greatest stars was the wonderfully nicknamed John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, a tough, brilliant passing point guard who helped the Rens win the world championship tournament of professional teams in 1939, then won another with the Washington Bears in 1943.
But Isaacs’ biggest contributions came well after his playing days ended. For decades, he mentored youth in the South Bronx at the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club, the kids not aware at all (usually, until they saw him on TV) that the still-fit elderly man was a trailblazer and a vocal critic of the conditions he and his teammates had to endure, on and off the court. Future NBA legends like Tiny Archibald came through the Madison Square Club as kids, shaped by Isaacs’ big voice and reservoir of stories.
“We would be driving through the Bronx,” recalled Claude Johnson, a historian and friend of Isaacs. “Somebody on the corner would be like, ‘Yo, Mr. I!’ Some of these guys are still on the street, some aren’t. But even those that still are gave him respect. I felt like royalty riding around with him.”
Isaacs died last week at the age of 93, never recovering from a recent stroke. He was one of the last surviving players from that era, and surely the greatest player of the remaining ones. Yet Isaacs is not in the Naismith National Basketball Hall of Fame, though teammates William “Pop” Gates and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, along with Rens’ owner Bob Douglas, have made it. (The Rens’ team was inducted as a whole group in 1963.)
Accurate statistics on the Rens’ games is almost impossible to find; stats like steals and blocked shots weren’t even kept in the NBA until recently. And the Rens played in an era where they received next to no attention from the mainstream press, basketball not having nearly the cache of baseball, horse racing or boxing. The contributions of a player like Isaacs — who helped introduce the pick-and-roll play to pro ball from his high school days — could easily be lost when considering his credentials for the Hall.
Fortunately, people like Johnson wage lonely battles for both the intellectual and property rights of those who have passed on.
Johnson’s brilliant website, www.blackfives.com, chronicles the lives and achievements of the African-American pioneers in professional basketball, teams that had faded from memory like the Philadelphia Panthers and Wabash Outlaws. He details their history and their championships won. More importantly, Johnson — who spent 20 years as an executive for companies like the NBA, Nike and Phat Farm — has established the property rights for some of those long-since disbanded teams, helping to make deals with companies to use the teams’ logos and likenesses.
Johnson met Isaacs soon after the induction of Gates into the Hall in 1989.
“It made me think, how come nobody is talking about this team?,” Johnson said. “The Arthur Ashe book [the groundbreaking A Hard Road to Glory, one of the first anthologies on African-American sports achievements] really enlightened me about them. And I began to discover there was a whole lot more. And I began talking to John.”
Johnson discovered that the Rens were more than a team — they were part of the heartbeat of Harlem during the celebrated Renaissance, when young writers like James Weldon Johnson and Zora Neale Hurston came of age alongside music giants like Duke Ellington and political leaders like Marcus Garvey. The Rens played at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, and their owner, the West-Indian born Douglas, soon consolidated most of the premier basketball talent in town and created a powerhouse team that played before and after orchestra sets led patrons to the dance floor.
The Rens couldn’t join many professional leagues because of the color of their skin, and many of the African-American leagues of the day teetered on the edge of financial peril. So despite drawing huge crowds at their home arena, they spent much of their time barnstorming the country, taking on any and all comers. They helped develop the passing game that is a staple of the modern game.
Playing more than 100 games a year — and drawing a monthly salary of $150 — the Rens established themselves as one of the premier basketball teams in the country, equalled only by their storied rivals, the Original Celtics. That the Celtics were comprised of white players, and the Rens black ones, was an issue only to people outside the court.
In his history of the Harlem Renaissance, On the Shoulders of Giants, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar writes how Joe Lapchick, the star center for the Celtics who went on to the Hall of Fame as a player and also a storied career as a college coach at St. John’s and in the NBA with the Knicks, would hug Cooper before every game — a gesture simple in its execution but profound in its power.
“Given the time,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, “this demonstration of affection was more than a casual gesture, and it resulted in years of vitriolic epithets and death threats for Lapchick.”
Lapchick’s son, Richard — a civil rights pioneer in his own right, having fought for racial justice over the past four decades in a variety of roles, including his current one as Chair of the DeVos Sport Business Mangagement Graduate Program at the University of Central Florida — heard his father’s constant praise of the Rens as his team’s equal. And the battles the two teams waged over nearly a decade were often the saving grace of professional basketball during the lean years of the Depression.
“It was the great fortune of the Rens and the Celtics that they had each other,” Richard Lapchick said. During these hostile years, Isaacs would not shy away from decrying the racism that his teammates had to endure, such as when they were denied admission to the National Basketball League in 1937. “He was this gentle but firm person who said what was right,” Richard Lapchick said. “He stood up for justice. He didn’t mince words. He talked about racism but left the door open for change. In his era, there weren’t many people who were outspoken and he was one of them.”
In 1939, two promoters created the World Professional Basketball Tournament, which allowed black teams to compete against white teams. The Rens were part of the 12-team field and advanced to the championship against the Oshkosh All-Stars. The Rens won, giving New York its first world championship in professional basketball.
Abdul-Jabbar writes “The Rens received championship jackets that said on the backs COLORED WORLD CHAMPIONS. When John Isaacs saw the lettering, he took a razor to it, cutting out the word colored. When Douglas saw what he was doing, he protested, saying, ‘You’re ruining the jacket!.’ Isaacs replied, ‘No, just making it better.'”
But the Rens’ legacy had to compete with that of other celebrated teams of the era, including the Harlem Globetrotters. The ‘Trotters originally played the game straight, amassing a record that was equally impressive to the Rens’. But they began to incorporate comic routines into their games in order to be more marketable to more audiences. The shtick soon became most of their act, and the Globetrotters began making big money for their owner, Abe Saperstein. The success of the Globetrotters as a business draw was crucial to the survival of the nascent NBA, whose teams were often the second half of doubleheaders that featured the ‘Trotters.
“One thing that happened was that the Globetrotters took all the limelight,” Johnson said. “I don’t want to take anything away from them at all. They were one of the fabulous teams along with the Rens … but the Depression came, and that’s when Abe Saperstein had to change his approach and make it a little more comical. But because the NBA was so beholden to the Globetrotters, they got all the attention and the history of the Rens got buried for a while, even though some of the [NBA’s] players like Sweetwater Clifton had played for the Rens.”
After Isaacs’ career ended in the 1950s, he stayed in the neighborhood, working five days a week at the Boys and Girls club after leaving his day job. Well into his seventh and eighth decades, he could still get up and down the floor better than most. But it was his mentoring of so many boys and girls that was his ultimate legacy. He would be there at the playground, at every tournament, every summer league, available to tell his stories to kids but also to listen to theirs.
“He would just be there for them,” Johnson said.
And Johnson wants to be there for Isaacs. He is hoping to work out a deal where NBA teams could wear the uniforms of the great Black Fives that played in their cities 60 and 70 years ago on future Throwback Nights.
“I’d like nothing more than the Rens’ uniforms to appear on the Knicks on a Throwback Night one day,” Johnson said. “You had teams like the Washington 12th Street Colored YMCA team. The Wizards could wear that jersey. You had the Philadelphia Panthers — Tarzan Cooper played for them. You had a team called the L.A. Red Devils that the Lakers could wear. The Bulls could wear the Wabash Outlaws.”
But the ultimate honor for Isaacs should come from the Hall, which twice nominated Isaacs as a finalist for induction in 2005 and 2006.
It seems clear that it’s time for the NBA to come up with a committee similar to the special committee established by Major League Baseball that recently spent four years sifting through 34 seasons’ worth of old records, newspaper clippings and other materials to compile a detailed record of the Negro Leagues era. From that database, the committee selected 17 people for enshrinement in the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006, including the first woman, Etta Manley, the co-owner of the Newark Eagles.
Such a committee would surely find that Isaacs should take his place in Springfield alongside his teammates Gates and Cooper, and owner Douglas. For they were the heart of a team that was before its time, yet of its time.
“I played many games against the New York Rens in the thirties, and continue to feel that they were the finest exponents of team play that I have ever seen,” said one of basketball’s immortals, the first man to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. People forget that before he created the UCLA dynasty as a coach, John Wooden was a heck of a player himself.
The passage of time can make all of us forgetful.
Let us not forget John Isaacs.