January is a difficult month for friends and fans of the New York Renaissance (“Rens”) of Harlem, the all-black professional basketball team that played from the 1920s through the 1940s.
The sorrow of their loss is still fresh in our hearts.
I wrote about Hank DeZonie at the time (R.I.P. Hank DeZonie, Harlem Rens Star, Among First Four Blacks In NBA), and remember wondering why it seemed like no one picked up on what had happened.
I had an opportunity once to present Hank with one of our Rens throwback jerseys, at which time I met his wife, Ethel, and their family.
Like so many forgotten heroes, Hank’s life “in the game of basketball” was rich, full of amazing stories and experiences, some of which were only known — and will only ever be known — in Harlem.
There’s no doubt that John Isaacs was affected by Hank’s death. “My friend is gone,” he said, standing before the gathering at Hank’s funeral, unable to fight back tears. “My friend is gone.”
Then, before you knew it, he was gone too.
John Isaacs was like family. Our friendship began in 1996 when I was still with the National Basketball Association, during its “50th Anniversary,” when few there or anywhere were discussing the Rens.
Later, I would bring John up to our house in Greenwich sometimes, and I’m really glad my boys got to know him. They came to his funeral. One time I was showing them a classic 1930s vintage photograph of John in his Rens uniform, holding a basketball. My youngest son was studying it and asked, “Daddy, is that the old days?” I nodded, “Yeah.” So he looked at me and said, “I like the old days.”
Even in his last years, John was ageless. The kids picked up on that. “Mr. Isaacs has been 92 for, like, our whole life,” they’d say, jokingly.
It’s easy to miss John, if you knew him, and even if you didn’t. That’s because he was hard to miss while alive — he showed up everywhere, talked to anybody, any time, he knew everybody, and everybody knew him.
We don’t have to dwell in the past, though, if done properly, honorably, then history can be used as a reference point to guide us today.
Who will tell the stories to honor Hank DeZonie, John Isaacs, and the other pioneers of the Black Fives Era, who played a historic role in the history and development of basketball as we know it today?
The answer is, we will. You, me, all of us.