Teams: New York Renaissance, Dayton Rens, Long Island Grumman Hellcats Five, Washington Bears, Hazleton Mountaineers, Utica Olympics, New York Old-Timers
“Isaacs had the most natural ability of any man ever to play for me.”
—Robert “Bob” Douglas, Owner, New York Renaissance
Home: New York City
John Isaacs, a fiery, powerfully built 6′-1″, 190 lb. guard, led his Textile High School (now Charles Evans Hughes H. S.) basketball team to the New York City High School Basketball championship title in 1935, receiving All-City honors in the process.
Fresh out of high school, Isaacs signed a professional basketball contract with the New York Renaissance (“Rens”) in 1936, earning the nickname “Boy Wonder.” Before signing with Rens team owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, Isaacs recalls that he first had to get his mother’s permission to sign.
“His playing ability and temperament fits him to become an important cog in the fast moving Rennie team,” predicted a local sportswriter.
Isaacs promptly led the Rens to season records of 122-19, 121-19, and 127-15, the latter culminating in the championship title of the first ever World’s Professional Basketball Tournament, held in 1939 in Chicago.
After winning the tournament, in a legendary statement that spoke louder than words, Isaacs took a razor blade and carefully cut the word “Colored” off of his championship jacket so that it read simply “World Champions.”
“He helped me with my writing, coached us in pool. Made you realize everything you learned was considered a tool. He spoke to you … not as a child, to us he spoke the truth. He was a mentor to me and many of my fellow youth.”
—Ebony Spruell, Hoe Avenue Square Boys and Girls Club member, 2009
He won the title again in 1943 with the all-black Washington Bears.
On the court, Isaacs was a fierce competitor and floor leader, a crisp passer and playmaker, a hardnosed defender, and a tenacious rebounder. In addition to bringing a crushing brand of physical toughness, Isaacs also introduced the pick and roll to the Rens, a play he learned in high school. At a time when statistics for assists, turnovers, steals, and rebounds were not tracked as they are today, a player was measured by team results and by the quality of his teammates.
In the case of the New York Rens, every player on the court was expected to do everything, so every player had to be up to the level of his teammates or he just wouldn’t play.
“To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball,” said legendary coach and Hall of Fame member John Wooden – who faced the barnstorming Rens often during the mid-1930s while a player with the Indianapolis Kautskys and other all-white pro basketball teams in Indiana – in a USA Today interview in 2000. “They had great athletes, but they weren’t as impressive as their team play. The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then, and I believe it would be today.”
“Observed by Manager Douglas in a preliminary game he got a contract with the Rens after one trial workout.”
—The Hammond (Indiana) Times, 1939
Isaacs recalls that Wooden could “flat out play.” Rather than “flash and dash,” says Isaacs, Wooden preferred to “take it to the rack.”
So, while there are few living players and hard stats from the Black Fives Era that can testify directly regarding Isaacs’ performance (Isaacs himself was the last surviving member of the ground-breaking 1938-1939 World’s Champion Rens team), the results speak for themselves.
No less than seven of his Rens and Bears teammates are already enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame: Gates (1989) and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper (1977) individually, and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Johnny Holt, Eyre Saitch, Willie Smith, and Bill Yancey as members of the 1932-1933 Rens team that was enshrined as a unit (1963). Two others are enshrined in the New York City and Philadelphia Basketball Halls of Fame, respectively: Clarence “Puggy” Bell and Zachariah “Zack” Clayton. William “Dolly” King, a teammate on the Bears, is enshrined in the Long Island University Sports Hall of Fame.
As testimony enough, Isaacs was a starter on the teams that featured these remarkable players.
In addition to the Rens and Bears, John Isaacs played pro basketball with numerous teams including the Hazleton Mountaineers (Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League) and the Utica Olympics (New York State Professional League) as well as with Brooklyn and Saratoga (American Basketball League) into the early 1950s.
After retiring, he coached basketball and later became a youth mentor and recreation counselor at the Hoe Avenue Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx, a job he held for over 50 years. “Mr. I” showed up for work every day until he suffered a stroke while on duty, in 2009. He died while hospitalized several days later.
Isaacs was a technical advisor for Black Fives, Inc. and co-hosted a weekly sports talk show, “What’s Going On,” that airs on WHCR-FM 90.3, the City College of New York community radio station otherwise known as “The Voice of Harlem.” He also appeared frequently at basketball camps, amateur league games, fundraising events, and panel discussions.
Isaacs was a Finalist for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005 and 2006, through its Veterans Committee, but did not get enough votes either time. Since then, however, the Hall of Fame created a special Early African American Pioneers of the Game Committee, with the power to directly elect candidates for enshrinement. Through this committee, Isaacs was elected to the Hall of Fame in February 2015.
In 2015, the City of New York renamed a street in the Bronx in honor Isaacs. John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs Way is the new name of a section of Hoe Avenue that is adjacent to the Hoe Avenue Boys & Girls Club, between E. 173rd and E. 174th Streets.
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