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.)
A fter joining the New York Rens with a professional contract straight out of high school in December 1936, John ‘Boy Wonder’ Isaacs promptly led the team to season records of 122-19 and 121-19, establishing himself as a playmaking floor leader with crisp passing, uncanny court vision, hard-nosed defense, and tenacious rebounding. He was a ferocious competitor and in addition to a crushing brand of physical toughness, Isaacs also introduced the pick and roll to the Rens, a play he learned playing for Coach Simon Goldstein at Textile.
Throughout this time, John had had a high school sweetheart named Ruby Stevens, who he would marry following his second season with the team, in April of 1938.
Ruby was expecting a child by the end of the 1938-39 season, after John had led the Rens to a 127-15 record and an invitation to the inaugural World Championship of Pro Basketball in Chicago in 1939.
Their daughter, Carol Louise Isaacs, was born exactly two months and one day after her father and the Renaissance Big Five won that tournament title. But not before John famously took a razor blade and cut the word “Colored” off of his victory jacket so that it read, simply, “World Champions.”
John won the “World Pro Cage” title again in 1943 with the all-black Washington Bears. The Bears’ roster was made up almost exclusively of former New York Renaissance players.
I always felt, and so did many others, that John deserved a place in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player, because of his actual on-court results. He was a Finalist for induction in 2005 and 2006, but did not get enough votes from the Veterans Committee either time. But one could see how their task was difficult.
That’s because John played at a time when statistics were not kept for assists, steals, forced turnovers, blocks, and rebounds, all of the so-called “hustle points.” At that time, a team leader was measured by team results and by the quality of his teammates. No less than seven of his Rens and Bears teammates are enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame: William “Pop” 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.
Despite being overlooked or forgotten, the achievements and talents of John and his teammates were real.
“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.”
John recalled that Wooden could “flat out play.” Rather than “flash and dash,” he said, Wooden preferred to “take it to the rack.”
So when the Hall of Fame formed a special Early African American Pioneers of the Game Committee, which allows direct election of candidates, I saw the move as an enormously important development that I feel still deserves its own standing ovation.
In addition to the Rens and Bears, John played pro basketball with numerous teams including the Grumman Aircraft Five, Harlem Yankees, 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.
Being on the road so much did not come without a price. By the late 1940s, John and Ruby were separated. They eventually divorced, and John married again, to Bertha Mae “Bert” Gary. The couple had five children, Gloria, John Jr., Deborah, Alex, also known as Shabbazz, and Karen.
By the mid-1950s, John had begun coaching basketball throughout New York City, most notably with the Rucker Pro-Am League in Harlem, and became a mentor to countless younger players. These included many all-time greats who are members of the Basketball Hall of Fame today, such as Nate “Tiny” Archibald, as well as others who became playground basketball legends, like Richard “Pee Wee” Kirkland.
John even coached his own youngest son Alex for a while. “He was a hardliner, just like he was as a player,” says Alex, of his father’s coaching style. “No nonsense, no showboating, if you weren’t playing a team game, you were sitting on the bench, no matter if you were his son, nephew, brother, or whatever.”
In addition, though he was no longer touring as a pro, John played several seasons with the New York Old Timers in the National Old Timers Athletic Association, a league of retired pros that included former New York Rens stars. His oldest daughter, Gloria, recalls that at an early age she would sit courtside watching her father play with the New York Old Timers. “He would take us all the time,” she says.
“I’ve been in their presence,” Alex remembers about his Dad’s close acquaintances who would appear at those games, as if it were yesterday. “Tarzan Cooper, Zack Clayton, Willie Smith, Puggy Bell, Eddie Younger, I met all of them as a boy, in person,” he says of the legendary basketball barnstormers. “All were stand up men, their brotherhood was solid, they were men of character, they had pride in teamwork, both on and off the court.”
John took his knack for mentoring, leadership, and guidance to another level in 1958, when the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club hired him as a youth recreation counselor at its newly opened Freeman Street Clubhouse in the Bronx. When that facility was replaced a decade later by the Joel E. Smilow Clubhouse on Hoe Avenue, a few blocks away, it became the cornerstone of the community, and so did John himself, with over 52 tireless years of service that affected generations of neighborhood residents.
“Most people receive history lessons via the content of a textbook, Boys and Girls Club members received ours during everyday conversations with Mr. I,” read the back of the program for the street dedication ceremony in June 2015 that renamed the section of Hoe Avenue adjacent to the Smilow Clubhouse as John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs Way. “Mr. I made us aware of what he had endured and challenged us to take advantage of the opportunities resulting from those hardships and efforts,” said Charles “Chuckie” Walker, a volunteer youth mentor there.
“John Isaacs paved the way on the basketball court, not only street basketball but for the NBA,” said “Pee Wee” Kirkland, at the street renaming. “He was a warrior on the court, but a giant when it comes to community service.”
Shortly after he passed away in 2009, Ebony Spruell, a young Madison Square Boys and Girls Club member, wrote a poem that perhaps best captures John’s day-to-day contributions to fledgling lives. “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.”
During all of those decades, John remained a courtside fixture at clinics, camps, games, and tournaments throughout every New York City borough, sometimes scolding overly greedy point guards with his famous refrain, “Pass the ball, get it off your wrist!” He also co-hosted a weekly sports talk show, “What’s Going On,” that aired on WHCR-FM 90.3, the City College of New York community radio station otherwise known as “The Voice of Harlem.” Everyone knew “Mr. I.”
A special “Harlem Rens” jersey signed by John Isaacs, to Claude Johnson. #newyork #nyc #harlem #renaissance #rens #remember #6 #boywonder #johnisaacs #basketball #legends #worldchampions #barnstorming #pioneers #friends #blackfives #history #pavedtheway #nba #nike #nikebasketball #converse #adidas #insta #instamood #instawonder A photo posted by Black Fives (@blackfives) on
I first got to know him during the mid-1990s, first as a legend, then as a person, then as a friend. We would ride around the Bronx with the windows down, John leaning out the passenger side waving at guys on corners, young and old, who might have been mistaken as “random,” but who instead were his former Boys and Girls Club “kids.” Everywhere, “Hey, Mr. I!”
One couldn’t help but love John, and not just because it was a really good idea to be on his friendly side. He helped inspire me to begin the journey of bringing the once-forgotten history of the Black Fives Era and its pioneers back to life, a journey that continues today with the Black Fives Foundation. John’s decades-long work with the Boys and Girls Club became a template for our own mission, namely, to save this history and to use it for the engagement of our youth as well as for the advocacy of those who paved the way.
At a certain point I asked John to be the official spokesperson for our organization, to give him an additional platform to speak about the history itself and to reinforce his own championship caliber values. Soon after that, we partnered with Nike, Inc. for a collection of merchandise to celebrate the teams of the Black Fives Era, including the New York Rens. Nike agreed to fly John out to their headquarters in Oregon, first class, of course, where he got a tour, met executives, spoke with employees, and was subsequently presented with a check in an amount that exceeded his cumulative career earnings as a professional basketball player. He deserved all of this. It was also one of my proudest moments with John. We were compadres. What an honor that was for me!
Congratulations to John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs, his family, his friends, and his many supporters, for his election into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Bravo!
(This concludes Part 2 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. Go to Part 1)