This article by Sonja Steptoe is from the Sports Illustrated archives (the “SI Vault”), and originally appeared in print in the magazine’s December 24, 1990 issue.
We felt it would be appropriate to re-publish the article here now, in honor of John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs, the former basketball star with the New York Rens (of Harlem) who passed away Monday morning at the age of 93. It’s easy to see why Mr. Isaacs was such a hero and friend to so many.
Meet An Ageless Wonder
John Isaacs, 75, is a hero on and off the court
by Sonja Steptoe
At the corner of 173rd Street and Hoe Avenue in the Bronx, there’s a worn little gym. On the south wall of the gym hangs a small wooden plaque. It honors John (Boy Wonder) Isaacs, a New York City resident still, and still a wonder, though no longer a boy. Isaacs earned the nickname more than half a century ago. A backcourt star, Isaacs led his high school basketball team to the New York City championship, then went on to be a standout with the 1939 professional world champion New York Rens and the 1943 champion Washington Bears, both of which were barnstorming teams with black rosters.
Isaacs has long been a local hero for his basketball feats. But the plaque commemorates something else. In 1983, 24 years after Isaacs retired from pro basketball, officials of New York’s Madison Square Boys’ and Girls’ Club saluted his work with neighborhood youngsters by naming the gym at the Hoe Avenue Clubhouse for him. After he left the barnstorming life, Isaacs dedicated himself to helping kids.
In the Bronx, that’s a life of constant trial and occasional reward. Isaacs has known several youngsters who died too young. He has seen others pass through the clubhouse and go on to the Ivy League, kids like Kevin Jones, who took skills he learned from Isaacs to Dartmouth. “It’s an inspiration to me that he’s still there, committed to the community,” says Jones, now head coach at Alfred University in upstate New York.
As Jones implies, Isaacs is still a regular at “his” gym. Two or three mornings a week, in sweatpants, T-shirt and no-frills hightops, the 75-year-old erstwhile Boy Wonder races up the yellow and green painted cinder-block stairway that leads to the club’s basketball court. In the glint of sunlight that penetrates the gym’s dusty skylight, Isaacs, a divorced father of six and grandfather of three, jumps rope, hits a tennis ball against the gymnasium wall and practices his jump shot for the zillionth time. Isaacs says the regimen, which he undergoes before turning his attention to the kids, has helped him “stay in some semblance of shape” and maintain the 6’3″, 193-pound physique of his playing days. It also has helped him win medals in tennis, basketball, Frisbee, and Softball throwing at the New York State Senior Games.
During this particular morning, Isaacs takes a breather between bank shots and backhands, and he looks back on his 22-year professional basketball career, and on the life that followed.
Isaacs was born in Panama in 1915 to a Jamaican father and a Panamanian mother, and he spoke both English and Spanish while growing up in Harlem. He learned his basketball in the city’s parks. He led his Textile High School team to the city championship during his senior year and impressed Bob Douglas, founder and owner of the Rens. It was Douglas who anointed Isaacs the Boy Wonder and asked him to come in for a tryout after graduation. Douglas again liked what he saw and signed Isaacs to a $150-a-month contract in 1937. “He told me I was the only player he ever sent for,” Isaacs says proudly.
It was indeed high praise, for the Rens, and other barnstorming teams of the pre-NBA era, were deep in talent. Although the nascent NBA first signed blacks in 1950—nine years before Isaacs retired-he and many other fine players never competed in that league. They nevertheless played big-time ball. “We were instrumental in taking the game out of church gyms and YMCAs and into the large arenas all over the country,” says Isaacs. “We helped promote basketball from its infancy to the big business that it is today.” Teams like the Rens routinely played more than a hundred games in a November-to-April season. In 1939, Isaacs and his teammates ran up an amazing 112-7 record and won the professional “world championship” by beating the Oshkosh All-Stars, a leading National Basketball League club, at a three-day tournament in Chicago. His basketball salary by then was $175 a month, plus expenses. Isaacs’ extra jobs—on the assembly line at Grumman Aircraft and as a clerk at New York Life Insurance-helped support his family during the summers.
The Rens opened each fall on their home court, the slick dance floor of Harlem’s Renaissance Casino, from which the team derived its name. Before and after the games and at halftime, Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra and other big bands played for the spectators, who paid $2 to watch hoops and cut a little rug. The Rens’ road show, which extended for nearly six months a year, saw the team traveling by bus throughout the East Coast, the South and the Midwest, hitting small towns like Goldsboro, N.C., en route to cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Indianapolis.
The environs the team visited often were hostile, but Isaacs didn’t cower. During one swing through the South in the early 1940’s, Isaacs, who needed to get to Atlanta for treatment of a stomach ailment, nearly came to blows with a railroad ticket agent in Knoxville, Tenn. The man had called him “boy,” and had refused to sell him a seat at the whites-only ticket window.
Isaacs would berate referees if he thought they were favoring the hometown squad—keeping it up even when the partisan crowds in the bleachers grew antagonistic toward the Rens. In those days of racial segregation, Isaacs and his teammates frequently were denied lodging and meals at hotels and restaurants. When an Indiana restaurant owner allowed the team to eat in the dining room but put a tall screen around the table, an indignant Isaacs left the table and returned to the bus, where he drank pineapple juice from a can and ate salami on Ritz crackers.
Isaacs’ roommate with the Rens was William (Pop) Gates. Gates and Isaacs guided the team’s motion offense, which called for lots of passing and little dribbling. They set picks and screens and loved to score through the back door-maneuvers that are in vogue today. Watch the passing game of the San Antonio Spurs and you’re witnessing the reincarnation of the New York Rens. Isaacs was the Magic Johnson of his day, specializing in pinpoint passes, usually to Gates, who was the team’s premier shooter.
It was a playing style much admired at the time. Isaacs recalls seeing white high school and college coaches from Louisville sitting enthralled on the sidelines, sketching diagrams of Rens plays. Many who saw them considered Gates, Isaacs and their teammates among the best players—black or white—of the era. John Wooden, who would gain larger fame later as coach of UCLA, was a member of Indianapolis’s Kautsky Athletic Club, and he played against the Rens in the 1930s. “They were the epitome of team basketball,” Wooden says. “Each player played his role and they were all great. They played basketball as it should be played.”
The New York Rens were admitted as a team to basketball’s Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1963. Three Rens—Douglas, Gates and Charles (Tarzan) Cooper, the team’s center—have been inducted individually. Isaacs has not…yet. He was nominated this year and, in a letter supporting that nomination, Gates called his former roommate “one of basketball’s greatest players.” The lobbying was to no avail, but Isaacs’ nomination will be considered again in ’91 by a committee of seven Hall of Famers. The obvious problem is that the Rens are a largely forgotten team. There are no scoring, rebounding or assist statistics for Isaacs, because none were kept while he was playing. Nevertheless, Isaacs figures he has a chance, since Gates was inducted as late as 1989 and “there are still people on the selection committee who know about and played against us.”
Isaacs’ talents hadn’t diminished when he left the Rens in 1941. While with Washington in ’43, he helped win a second pro basketball world championship, and he was the Utica (N.Y.) Pics’ most valuable player in 1947. Red Sarachek, who co-directs a summer basketball camp in Sidney, N.Y., was coaching Utica’s archrival, Mohawk, in the early ’50s. He remembers Isaacs as “a great player.” Red Holzman, who would one day shine as an NBA coach, was a star with the Rochester Royals when he faced Isaacs and the Pics. He says the aging Boy Wonder was “a tough, strong guy who played hard. He stacked up well against other players in that era.”
When Isaacs finally left the pros at the age of 44, he settled more firmly in New York City. He began working with kids at the playgrounds, and through the years his guidance took on structure. He is now called the director of outreach programs at the Hoe Avenue Clubhouse, but Isaacs was reaching out well before he had such a grand title. He taught himself to be both coach and counselor. He found avenues for his talents at the Boys’ and Girls’ Club and at the clubhouse gym. A dozen years ago he began working during summers at Sarachek’s basketball camp, a job he continues to perform today. In 1972 he started a fund-raising campaign to send Bronx youngsters to summer camp, another effort he continues.
Isaacs, so long a barnstormer, still loves to travel. On a trip to Australia in 1988, he perfected a hilarious Crocodile Dundee impression, and the following year in Moscow he discovered that the fastest way to hail a Russian cab is with a pack of Marlboro cigarettes in hand. But the central part of his life is in the Bronx. After his morning workouts, he counsels not only teenagers but inmates from a nearby minimum-security facility, who spend two hours a day at the gym. The work is sometimes enjoyable, sometimes painfully frustrating. Three Bronx youths who used to drop by the Hoe Avenue Clubhouse died recently, all of them violently. The first was killed in a fight over a fake gold chain, the second in a drive-by shooting and the third in a gang war. Isaacs knows that life is difficult on New York’s meanest streets, but this doesn’t make the losses any easier to bear. “I try to tell these kids that it’s easy to get into trouble but hard to get out of it,” he says as he reflects upon the recent deaths. “They don’t want to hear it.”
His spirits lift again as he redirects his attention to basketball. While a pickup game proceeds on the gym’s single court, Isaacs puts a group of college-bound students through a rigorous ball-movement drill on the sidelines. He’s in his element here, upstairs in the club, teaching the thing he knows best. Sure, he would like to be in the Hall of Fame, but being in this gym that bears his name will do for now. “Getting into the Hall would be nice,” Isaacs says. “It would mean that somewhere along the way, someone recognized the fact that I was one of the pioneers. But if I can capture the attention of a few of these youngsters and help them, that’s worthwhile, too.”