Today in 1924, the first game between two fully-professional African American basketball teams was played, at the Renaissance Casino in Harlem.
You might think that’s no big deal if you don’t realize how basketball was before full-year guaranteed player contracts.
Imagine if LeBron James played for whichever team gave him the best offer on a given night? What if Kobe Bryant chose his team based on which had the best upcoming schedule for a given week?
That’s what it was like.
Any player could play for any team, for any game, depending on who paid the best. The practice was called “player jumping,” and everyone did it.
It was great for players, who shared the gate receipts from the games in which they played.
The better the player, the more lucrative the practice.
“I played one manager against the other and sometimes got as much as $75 per game.” recalled Original Celtics star and Hall of Fame member Joe Lapchick.
“When there was a clash of dates I took the best offer.”
Player jumping was lucrative and grueling.
“It was no big deal for guys to play 2 or 3 games for 2 or 3 different teams in 2 or 3 different states in a single day,” says former Rens and Washington Bears star John Isaacs.
This wasn’t great for owners, who couldn’t keep consistent lineups.
“No manager could count on his starting team from one game to the next,” Lapchick said, “but it was not considered illegal for a player to jump from one team to another for a game.”
Getting paid to play on a per-game basis is what’s known today as “semi-professional” status.
But the Commonwealth Big Five changed that by installing first fully-professional African American basketball team.
By locking down contract terms for players, the Commons were able to get the best talent. Players were confident they would get paid and didn’t have to chase the best dollar.
This was clearly a “best practice” at the time because the Commons won the Colored Basketball World’s Championship that same year.
New York Rens owner Robert Douglas copied the move and took it a step further.
Although he lost this particular game in 1924, he put the Commonwealth Big Five out of business the following year by raiding their players and signing them up for his own team with better deals.
Lucky for Douglas that the Commons didn’t have multi-year contracts.
The Rens went on to form the greatest basketball dynasty of the last century, paving the way for today’s stars in the N.B.A.
Guys like LeBron and Kobe who have full-year guaranteed contracts.
(Commonwealth Big Five photograph by James Van Der Zee and courtesy of Donna Mussenden Van Der Zee; photograph of Bob Douglas courtesy of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.)