For his entire career, the only long-term vision that New York Rens owner Bob Douglas fought for was that black basketball players could be indisputably acknowledged as the equals or superiors of white hoopsters on the court. The Rens title victory in the 1939 World Championship of Professional Basketball did that, and was a symbolic triumph for black Americans. However, this single-minded pursuit caused Douglas to underestimate the effects of World War II, new forms of competition, and the force of money.

New York Rens player Charles 'Tarzan' Cooper, ca. 1939

New York Rens player Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, ca. 1939 | Ca. 1939 | Photograph

Charles “Tarzan” Cooper was one of the greatest centers of his time. Cooper, a Philadelphia native, starred in the Christian Street YMCA’s Senior Interscholastic League before joining the all-black Philadelphia Panthers semi-pro team in 1926. Cooper’s size (6′-5″, 215 lbs.) and tenacious rebounding produced the nickname “Long Boy” and then “Tarzan.” He joined the New York Renaissance Big Five in 1929, leading them to an 88-game winning streak in 1933 and a World’s Championship title in 1939. In 1941, Cooper left the Rens to sign a better-paying contract with the all-black Washington Bears and led them to a World’s Championship in 1943.

New York Renaissance vs New Britain Pros placard, 1946

The Game of the Century, New York Renaissance vs New Britain Pros, February 24, 1946, featuring William “Dolly” King, won by the Renaissance, 48-37 | Placard | 1946

In 1946, the Basketball Association of America was formed, in direct competition with the National Basketball League. Both professional leagues–the only two existing viable circuits–now competed for top players and fan attention. Among other strategies, the NBL responded by signing four African American players including stars William “Dolly” King with the Rochester Royals and William “Pop” Gates with the Tri-State Blackhawks. All four players were dropped before the end of the season after Gates got into a fight with a white Syracuse Nationals player in February 1947.

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 1939

The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, Fort Wayne, Indiana, with an article describing the New York Rens title victory in the 1939 (inaugural) World Pro Basketball Tournament | March 29, 1939 | Newspaper clipping

On March 28, 1939, the New York Rens, with a season record of 122-7, defeated the Oshkosh All Stars, champions of the whites-only National Basketball League, to win the championship title in the inaugural invitation-only World Professional Basketball Tournament at the Chicago Coliseum. The tournament featured ten of the country’s top all-white pro teams and one other black squad, the Harlem Globe Trotters. Whereas previously, only the Negro Press covered black basketball, this time the results were carried in every major national newspaper. It was a major publicity triumph for New York Rens owner Bob Douglas, and temporarily silenced the claims of superiority by his archrival, Harlem Globe Trotters owner Abe Saperstein, whose team the Rens defeated to reach the final.

Robert Douglas, Zachariah Clayton

Robert "Bob" Douglas, owner of the New York Renaissance Big Five professional basketball team | Ca. 1940s | Reproduction

Colorized photographic image of New York Rens player Zachariah “Zack” Clayton | Ca. 1939 | Reproduction

Professional basketball player contract, Renaissance Big Five Inc.

Professional basketball player contract, between Renaissance Big Five Inc. and James Usry, future mayor of Atlantic City, executed by Usry and Renaissance owner Robert Douglas. | November 1, 1946

“All the living expenses of the members of the team are paid while they are on the road, even down to the chewing gum,” New York Rens owner Bob Douglas told the Amsterdam News in 1939.
Powerful forward Jim Usry signed with the Rens in 1946 for $500 a month, including disability insurance, and played with the team in the 1947 and 1948 World Championships as well as with the 1948-49 Dayton Rens of the National Basketball League. In 1984, he would be elected as the first African American mayor of Atlantic City.

New York Rens, Infantile Paralysis Fund, fundraiser game ticket, 1941

Ticket for basketball games (New York Rens vs Philadelphia SPHAs and Akron Firestones vs Toledo White Huts) in celebration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s birthday and as fundraiser for the Infantile Paralysis Fund, Sunday, January 26, 1941, at the University of Toledo Field House | 1941 | Ticket

Renaissance vs Sheybogan Redskins ticket, 1941

Renaissance vs Sheybogan Redskins, February 23, 1941 | 1941 | Ticket, cardboard mounted

Alpha Phi Alpha vs. Omega Psi Phi game ticket, 1942

Traditional Basketball Classic & Dance at the Renaissance Casino, Alpha Phi Alpha vs. Omega Psi Phi, two African American fraternity teams, January 1, 1942 | Ticket fragment

New York Renaissance vs Sheboygan Redskins ticket, 1942

New York Renaissance vs Sheboygan Redskins, January 1, 1942 | 1942 | Ticket


Ticket for basketball game, New York Rens vs Chicago Shamrocks, April 7, 1948, the day before the start of the 1948 World Championship of Professional Basketball | Ticket, cardboard mounted

The 1940s created many unanticipated challenges for Bob Douglas and his New York Rens. Travel was restricted by wartime rationing of gasoline, tires, and industrial supplies. In 1941, the Colored Intercollegiate Athletic Association (CIAA) banned games against professional teams, cutting trips south to play historically black colleges. This meant more home court dates in front of smaller audiences. Meanwhile, Abe Saperstein, owner of the increasingly popular Harlem Globe Trotters, had aligned his team with the National Basketball League and the Basketball Association of America for collaborative (and lucrative) doubleheaders in America’s largest venues, with agreements for their owners to limit games with the Rens. These factors led to reduced income, which affected Douglas’ ability to match escalating salary offers from competitors.

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