On March 1, 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio, the all-black New York Renaissance played in the first round of the inaugural Max Rosenblum Invitational Pro Basketball Tournament.
William “Dolly” King, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-lb. star center and captain of the undefeated Long Island University Blackbirds, left his team mid-season to join the Rens so he could play with them in this event.
The L.I.U. Blackbirds, under legendary Basketball Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee, went on to post a 41-0 record and win the 1941 National Invitational Tournament (N.I.T.), which was the national collegiate championship prior to the existence of the N.C.A.A.
Why would a college basketball star on an undefeated team make a move like that? What was so great about this tournament in Cleveland?
The answer is easy considering that the two existing viable professional basketball leagues – the National Basketball League (N.B.L.) and the Basketball Association of America (B.A.A.) – were whites-only.
King left L.I.U. to make a living. The purse for the Rosenblum tournament was $1,500, a very large sum back then considering that a month’s rent was around $20 to $30.
The Rens were the only African American team entered in the four-team tournament. The other contenders were the Detroit Eagles of the N.B.L., the Philadelphia SPHAs of the American Basketball League, and the independent New York Original Celtics.
Max Rosenblum, a Jewish entrepreneur and the owner of Rosenblum’s Clothing Store on Euclid Street, sponsored the event. “Just name your terms, at Rosenblums,” was the store’s slogan. Too bad King couldn’t name his terms in a professional basketball league.
The Rens lost their first round game to the SPHAs, 55-48, in front of 4,500 spectators at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium. The following night they beat the Detroit Eagles in the consolation game, 49-45, with 6,500 fans on hand. The tournament was a huge success for Rosenblum. King was the high scorer.
A few weeks later the Rens played in the World Championship of Professional Basketball. The event had a $10,000 prize and was held at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, where the average attendance was 15,000.
The Renaissance won their first two games, outmatching the Dayton Sucher Wonders (43-20) and the Kenosha Royals (43-15), but lost to the Detroit Eagles in the semi-final round, 43-42. Coming back to win the consolation game, the Rens beat the Toledo White Huts, 57-42.
King made the all-tournament team.
King went on to have a marvelous career, eventually helping break the color barrier in professional basketball when he signed with the Rochester Royals of the N.B.L. in 1946.
He later became a prominent basketball referee as the first African American official in the Eastern College Athletic Conference (E.C.A.C.). King also became a professor at Manhattan Community College.
He died of a heart attack in February, 1969.
William “Dolly” King was enshrined in the Long Island University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000. In 2013, the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, honored King and his descendants with a recognition event and the permanent installation in its main concourse of a mural-sized photographic image of him.