“He’s a really good basketball player, one who’d help any club in the National league. He’s a “cutie,” as are most veterans of pro basketball play, and Pop had several years’ experience with the New York Renaissance team before moving in the NBL this season.”
— Syracuse Post-Standard, 1946

William 'Pop' Gates

William “Pop” Gates.

Teams: New York Renaissance, Long Island Grumman Flyers, Washington Bears, Long Island Grumman Flyers/Wildcats/Hellcats, Buffalo Bisons (National Basketball League), Tri-Cities Blackhawks (NBL), Dayton Rens (NBL), Scranton Miners (American Basketball League), Harlem Globetrotters
Home: Harlem, New York City
Born: 1917
Died: 1999

William ‘Pop’ Gates was a pioneering professional basketball player who was elected into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1989. He was a 6′-3″, 195 lb. sharpshooting center.

Gates was born in Decatur, Alabama and lived in Cleveland, Ohio briefly before his parents moved to New York City, where he attended Benjamin Franklin High School.

He played varsity basketball at Ben Franklin under head coach “Doc” Spiegleman. He was often called “Billy” and it was during this time that Gates earned the nickname “Pop.”

One of his Franklin teammates was Arlington “Ollie” Edinboro, a Harlem native who would later become a recreation worker and dedicate his career to teaching kids life lessons through basketball. His impact as a community leader was so great that in 2005 the City of New York dedicated a park in his honor, the Edinboro Playground, located near West 135th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. “Mr. Ollie was one the greatest men to ever to walk the streets of New York City,” said one community veteran named Ed Torrence. “He probably save hundreds of lives through the game of basketball in one form or another – city ballplayers like Arnold Dugger, Butch Lee, Artie Green, Alex Eldridge and even Doc J was influenced by Mr. Ollie.”[1]

Franklin’s crosstown rival was another New York City powerhouse, Textile High School, which featured future Basketball Hall of Fame member John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs.

As team captain, Gates led Franklin HS to the New York City basketball championship title in 1938 while winning all-scholastic honors. Even while still in high school, and after graduating, Gates played with the Harlem YMCA Seniors alongside future New York Renaissance players Charlie Isles and Clarence “Puggy” Bell against visiting African American collegiate teams like Virginia State, Virginia Union, and Howard University as well as against local college squads like Long Island University.

In late 1938, Gates joined the New York Renaissance for their 1938-39 season. Numerous newspaper accounts claimed that he was a graduate of Clark College (now Clark Atlanta University). It was common for imaginative advance publicity notices to state that certain players “hailed” from certain colleges, as a way to hype up demand. But in fact Gates went straight from Franklin High School into the pros. He promptly helped the “Rens” win the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball in March 1939.

He made the event’s All Tournament Team in 1940, also with the Rens.

World War II rationing of gasoline and other travel necessities caused New York Renaissance owner Robert “Bob” Douglas to cut his barnstorming schedule, which impacted his ability to pay top salaries consistently. Many of his players jumped to other teams, including Gates who went to the Washington Bears for the 1941-42 season along with several other Rens teammates.

The 1943 Washington Bears, winners of the World’s Championship of Professional Basketball. Left to right, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Charlie Isles, William “Dolly” King, John Isaacs, William “Pop” Gates, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Zach Clayton, Robert “Sonny” Wood, and Jackie Bethards.

The 1943 Washington Bears, winners of the World’s Championship of Professional Basketball. Left to right, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Charlie Isles, William “Dolly” King, John Isaacs, William “Pop” Gates, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Zach Clayton, Robert “Sonny” Wood, and Jackie Bethards.

He led the Bears to win the World Pro Championship title in 1943 while being selected to the All-Tournament First Team. Gates is the only player to have participated in all ten of the World Championship events, from 1939 to 1948.

Along with several other former Renaissance stars, Gates simultaneously played for the Long Island Grumman Flyers, an industrial team sponsored by the factory that manufactured the famous fighter planes with the same name. His teammates there included William “Dolly” King, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, John Isaacs, and Ossie Shectman, who would later be credited with scoring the first field goal in the National Basketball Association. The Grumman team was also known as the Wildcats and the Hellcats, after the warplanes that were built at the plant.

During the 1945-46 season, Gates played with a team called the Chicago Monarchs, billed as “the Satchel Paige of Negro basketball.”[2]

In October 1946, the 29-year-old Gates signed with the Buffalo Bisons of the National Basketball League. That season, the NBL signed three other black players: “Dolly” King with the Rochester Royals, Willie King with the Detroit Gems, and Bill Farrow with the Youngstown Bears. He was promoted as a “Negro cage wizard who has been compared with Hank Luisetti as one of the country’s greatest courtmen.”[3]

In January of that season, the Bisons became the Tri-Cities Blackhawks, representing Moline and Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. The franchise later became the Milwaukee Hawks, the St. Louis Hawks, and eventually the Atlanta Hawks of today.

Gates was considered by many to be one of the best players in the NBL.

In February, the Blackhawks were playing the Syracuse Nationals in a crucial matchup that had playoff implications. During the game, Gates was involved in a highly publicized on-court fight with veteran Nationals player John “Chick” Meehan.

Meehan was the “Nats” best player. Moreover, in the words of John Christgau, author of the book Tricksters in the Madhouse, he was “a local boy who had made good,” and “as brash as he was handsome.” Meehan also had “a reputation as a pugnacious defender,” but he couldn’t stop Gates that day, and that’s what got him in trouble.

The game was rough, and, according to witnesses, featured extra-curricular activity on both sides. Toward the end of regulation time, Meehan and Gates both found themselves going after a loose ball. But Gates got there first and Meehan went flying. “The left side of his face hit the floor hard and made a noise like a bowling ball striking a pin,” Christgau writes.

Meehan got up and squared off threateningly against Gates. But without missing a beat, Gates sent a crushing right cross to the side of Meehan’s face. The husky Syracuse player crumpled to the floor; he was out cold.

A near-riot ensued, with Meehan still laying unconscious on the court, surrounded by the melee. Gates was eventually escorted out of the arena by police and National Guard troops.

A few days later, Syracuse Post-Standard sportswriter Bill Reddy made the inevitable connection to Jackie Robinson:

The tough part of it, for Gates, is that he happens to be a Negro, one of three Negroes in the league, which had none in the league prior to this season. Any other player might have punched an opponent, might have caused just as much furor. I doubt if any other player in the league could have thrown such a punch — Pop’s really beautiful wallop would have shamed most professional boxers — but that’s beside the point.

Jackie Robinson is slated for a major league trial with the baseball Dodgers; the National Basketball league is placing no bar against Negro competitors, yet when something like this happens, it sets back the fight for equality which Negroes have been waging so hard. Perhaps it shouldn’t be so. Unfortunately, it is so.

“Meehan got chesty with me and I decked him,” Gates said later, insisting that his opponent had thrown him down twice earlier in the game. Still, Gates subsequently wrote a letter of apology to the Nationals star, who was hospitalized for weeks. The two had met many times before.

Meehan, for his part, acknowledged this. “He’s thrown everything in the book at me,” he said, “and the same goes for the way I’ve treated him.” More strikingly, Meehan went to considerable lengths to explain something. “This wasn’t one of those racial affairs,” he insisted, to reporters.

But the Blackhawks dropped Gates before the end of the season. The rest of the NBL did the same with their black players. Many, like historian Christgau, felt that the league simply “purged” its African American players out of fear.

Gates rejoined the New York Renaissance after leaving the Blackhawks. Ironically, he came back to the NBL a year later when his Rens team replaced the league’s financially disabled Detroit Vagabond Kings franchise as the Dayton Rens.

In Gates’ obituary, the New York Times called the Meehan punch a “nasty incident.” Nevertheless, Gates was eventually enshrined in Basketball Hall of Fame, although still not without significant lobbying by black journalists like Howie Evans of the Amsterdam News.

Robinson, as we all know, did make the Dodgers despite the punch. His debut was about two months later, on April 15, 1947.

[1] Personal interview with the writer, 6 January 2010.
[2] Niagara Falls Gazette, 21 January 1946.
[3] “Bison Cage Pros Sign Pop Gates,” Buffalo Courier-Express, 13 October 1946.