Washington DC Bears basketball team, 1943

International News Photos | Washington DC Bears basketball team, winners of the 1943 World Championship of Professional Basketball. (Left to right, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Charlie Isles, William “Dolly” King, John Isaacs, William “Pop” Gates, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Zack Clayton, Robert “Sonny” Wood, and Jackie Bethards.) | [December 3,] 1943 | Photograph


In 1941, the financially struggling Washington (DC) Bruins all-black professional basketball team got new backing from local theater chain owner Abe Lichtman, who renamed the team the Washington Bears. Since his theater business kept him afloat, Lichtman had more cash to spend than New York Rens owner Bob Douglas and signed away the Rens entire roster of star players. The team was also known as the Lichtman Bears.

Handbill promoting a professional basketball game, Washington Bears vs Jersey City Reds, November 28, 1946 | 1946

Handbill promoting a professional basketball game, Washington Bears vs Jersey City Reds, November 28, 1946 | 1946

Newspaper article, 1943

Newspaper article promoting game between Washington Bears and Sheboygan Redskins, with photograph of William “Pop” Gates | December 3, 1943 | Newspaper clipping


Having lost his best players, New York Rens owner Bob Douglas was forced to withdraw from the 1943 World Championship tournament. “I’m through with those men that left me for a few more dollars than I could afford to pay them for the Chicago Tournament,” Douglas told the Pittsburgh Courier. “They have shown themselves to be ingrates and are not reliable.” The Bears were 41-0 and went on to win the World’s Championship title. “This is the first time since the turn of the century that a professional basketball team has enjoyed a season without a single defeat,” wrote tournament chairman Leo Fischer of the Chicago Herald-American, which sponsored the event.

Photo Story, 1943

Haskell Cohen, with photographs by David Eisendrath, Jr. | “The World’s Greatest Basketball Team” | Photo Story, Vol. 3, No. 6, February 1943 | 1943


Getting a feature article about his team in a highly visible mainstream magazine was a major public relations coup for owner Bob Douglas. However, it was an empty accomplishment because his entire lineup, including every Rens player named in the story, had already left the team to play with the Washington (Lichtman) Bears, a squad that would win the World Championship of Professional Basketball within weeks of the story’s publication.

Robert "Bob" Douglas | Letter from Robert Douglas, Renaissance Big Five, Inc., to George Paris | February 20, 1945 | Corporate letter and envelope

Robert “Bob” Douglas | Letter from Robert Douglas, Renaissance Big Five, Inc., to George Paris | February 20, 1945 | Corporate letter and envelope

Newspaper article, 1942

Newspaper article about professional basketball game, New York Renaissance vs Sheboygan Redskins | January 31, 1942 | Newspaper clipping


New York Rens owner Bob Douglas had few if any critics, and believed that through sheer excellence, his Rens eventually would be invited to join one of the professional leagues. “It had been his ambition since the founding of the club in 1923 to see the team officially proclaimed world champions,” wrote the Chicago Defender after Douglas won the World Championship in 1939. “It took years of planning and sacrifice,” wrote the Philadelphia Tribune in 1940. “Bob also proved that it took a large measure of honesty of purpose.”

Unused basketball game ticket, 1941

Unused basketball game ticket (Game 14, Sheboygan Redskins vs NY Rens), February 11, 1941 | 1941


This unused National Basketball League ticket for Game 14 of the Sheboygan Redskins 1940-41 season contains an unusual misprint. The game was played February 11, 1941 at Eagle Auditorium in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, between the Redskins and the New York Rens, who were filling a scheduled date as the previously unspecified non-league opponent. The misprint, which incorrectly labels this a National Basketball Ass’n game, appears to indicate that the Rens were members of the NBA. The NBA was not formed until 1949.

Chicago Studebakers basketball team

Chicago Studebakers basketball team, from “The Chicago Studebakers: How the UAW Helped Integrate Pro Basketball and Reunited Four Players Who Made History,” Solidarity Magazine, July 1992, pp. 16-19 | 1992 | Reproduction

Newspaper article, 1942

Newspaper article reporting season opening game between Chicago Studebakers and Sheboygan Redskins, November 25, 1942 | 1942 | Newspaper clipping


By 1942, the military draft had claimed 50% of the players in the whites-only NBL, including its leading scorer. With few options available, the Chicago Studebakers and the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets broke the league’s color barrier by signing six and four African American players, respectively. Toledo folded after losing its first four games. The Studebakers, with an 8-15 record, were the pride of the United Automobile Workers Union, and reached the 1943 World Championships. The Studebakers broke up after one season due to further military drafting, and the league would remain without black players until the Syracuse Nationals signed William “Dolly” King in 1946.

Dayton Rens, c. 1948

Dayton Rens basketball team (New York Rens), from interior of 1948 National Basketball League Yearbook | 1948 | Reproduction

Official National Pro Basketball League Yearbook, 1949

“Dayton Rens, Robert Douglas Manager” | Official National Pro Basketball League Yearbook, 1949 Edition, Who’s Who in the National Basketball League | 1948

Bar glass imprinted with National Basketball League teams

Bar glass imprinted with National Basketball League teams for 1948-49, including the Dayton Rens, during the circuit’s last season | 1949 | Bar glass


In 1948, the National Basketball League was struggling financially, having lost several teams and star players to the rival Basketball Association of America. Seeking a new franchise to replace the failed Detroit Vagabond Kings, they found a willing participant in New York Rens owner Bob Douglas. Douglas agreed to move his team to Dayton, change its name to the Dayton Rens, and assume the franchise’s poor 2-17 record. The Dayton lineup was one of the Rens’ strongest ever. Though seen as a positive racial breakthrough by some, history shows that it was a bad deal. Dayton finished last in the NBL standings at 16-43.

Weeks after the season ended, NBL and BAA owners met in Chicago to negotiate a merger into what would become the National Basketball Association. “It was understood that all teams in both leagues which intended to stay in pro basketball would agree to operate in a merged organization,” several newspapers reported. Douglas was poised to be a founding owner in the NBA. Instead, NBL owners selected eight of its nine teams to join the new merged league, rejecting only the Dayton Rens.

New York City sports bar scene featuring New York Rens star William "Pop" Gates

Photo by A. Hansen, 134 West 116 St., N.Y.C. | New York City sports bar scene featuring New York Rens star William “Pop” Gates and his wife, socializing and celebrating with friends after attending prize fight won by Albert “Chalky” Wright over Charles “Lulu” Constantino at Madison Square Garden | 1942 | Photograph


New York Rens star William “Pop” Gates, a prizefighting fan, sits at the center table in a New York City sports pub with his wife standing by him, on May 7, 1942, with supporters of boxer Albert “Chalky” Wright, who had just defeated heavily favored Charles “Lulu” Constantino for the World Featherweight Title. The champion Wright, who is enshrined in the International Boxing Hall of Fame, stands third from the left. The smiling faces in this crowd reveal not only that their man won but also that mixed race gatherings were commonplace in the city.

West Virginia State University basketball team, 1950

Don Bosco, Photographer, San Francisco | West Virginia State University Basketball Team with Governor Earl Warren (future 14th Chief Justice, US Supreme Court), featuring Earl Lloyd, soon to become one of the first three black players in the NBA | [Feb,] 1950 | Photograph


Earl Lloyd became the first African American to play in an NBA game, on October 31, 1950, with the Washington Capitols. Prior to joining the NBA, the two-time All American led West Virginia State University, a historically black college, to two Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association championships, in 1948 and 1949, as well as an undefeated 1947-48 season.

In 1949, a California sports promoter invited WVSU to play in a four-team tournament at the San Francisco Cow Palace against St. Mary’s, Santa Clara, and the University of San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “a first in inter-racial relations here.” Returning in 1950, they posed for a photograph with then Governor of California, Earl Warren, the future 14th Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Lloyd played in the NBA for nine years, winning an NBA Championship with the Syracuse Nationals in 1955. He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003.

Souvenir scorecard for 1949-50 Duquesne University basketball game

Souvenir scorecard for 1949-50 Duquesne University basketball game at The Gardens in Pittsburgh, PA, featuring star player Chuck Cooper, soon to become one of the first three African Americans in the NBA | 1949-1950

Chuck Cooper, 1950.

Charles “Teenie” Harris | Duquesne University varsity basketball player Charles “Chuck” Cooper, with head coach Donald Moore | 1950 | Photograph


In 1950, Charles “Chuck” Cooper became the first black player ever selected in an NBA Draft, as the first pick in the second round, by the Boston Celtics. Cooper was an All-American at Duquesne University, leading the school to National Invitational Tournament appearances under head coaches Charles “Chick” Davies (1947) and Donald “Dudey” Moore (1950). After graduating, Cooper joined the Army and then played briefly with the Harlem Globetrotters before being drafted by the Celtics. He was the second African American to play in an NBA game, remaining in the league for six seasons with the Celtics, Milwaukee Hawks, and Fort Wayne Pistons.

Official Souvenir Program, World Series of Basketball, 1950

Official Souvenir Program, World Series of Basketball, 1950 National Tour, College All-Americans vs Harlem Globetrotters, with photograph of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton | 1950


In 1950, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the third African American to play in an NBA game, with the New York Knicks. Clifton had been a star center with the Dayton Mets, the New York Rens, the Dayton Rens, and the Harlem Globe Trotters.
The NBA allowed Knicks owner Ned Irish to purchase Clifton’s contract from the Globe Trotters only after Irish threatened to remove his team from the league. Clifton played with the Knicks for seven seasons and was named to the 1957 NBA All-Star team before being traded to the Detroit Pistons for his final season in the league.

 

 

The BAA-NBL merger into the NBA in 1949 undermined Bob Douglas and his New York Rens by locking him out. Similarly, the NBA’s signing of African Americans in 1950 undermined Abe Saperstein and his Globe Trotters by threatening his talent stream. But by then, Saperstein was running a globally renowned brand; he adapted, shifted, and proceeded on course. Not so for Douglas, for whom the cost of the lockout was steep. The New York Renaissance Big Five organization ceased business operations in 1949, after reportedly selling its name to Saperstein.

In 1972, following an all-out lobbying campaign on his behalf orchestrated by New York Amsterdam News sportswriter Howie Evans, Douglas became the first African American individually enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. After retiring from basketball in 1949, Douglas managed the Renaissance Ballroom, staged reunion games, arranged charity events, and recounted his days with the New York Renaissance Big Five.

Only two other former New York Rens are enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, also the result of relentless urging: Charles “Tarzan” Cooper (1977) and William “Pop” Gates (1989).


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