Dayton Rens, 1948

Dayton Rens, 1948.

Was this symbol of racial progress a bad move for Bob Douglas and his New York Rens? Did it lead to their imminent demise? And, what can we learn from this today?

On December 19, 1948, the Rens made history by replacing the Detroit Vagabond Kings of the National Basketball League and debuting as the renamed Dayton Rens.

The game took place at the Dayton Coliseum, making the Rens the first all-black basketball team to play in a professional league.

Turns out it wasn’t such a good deal. Here’s why. The Vagabond Kings were replaced because they were financially troubled and, well, they sucked.

The league not only moved the franchise from Detroit to Dayton (where the New York Rens previously had drawn big crowds as an out-of-town barnstorming team) but also forced the Dayton Rens to inherit the Kings’ won-lost record in the standings.

So, before playing a single game the Rens were in last place with a 2-17 record. Having an outside shot at the playoffs would have meant winning every single remaining game (40 total).

Wasn’t it really just a royal pimping of the “famous Negro team”? For one thing, Dayton’s basketball fans didn’t support or even like their new all-black team. Rens owner Douglas recognized all of this, so he often split his squad and continued touring as the “old” New York Rens with one half of the roster, while the other half played as the Dayton franchise. This strategy had regrettable results, with the Rens winning only 14 of their remaining games.

Rens Join NBL headline

The move by the Rens made headlines.

But the N.B.L. was failing as a league and needed the Dayton Rens. Their best team, the 1947-48 N.B.L. champion Minneapolis Lakers featuring future Basketball Hall of Fame member George Mikan, had jumped to a competing league, the Basketball Association of America. So did the Fort Wayne Pistons, Rochester Royals, and Indianapolis Kautskys.

The N.B.L.’s Eastern Division was down to just 3 teams. Balance was needed. And money. The Rens’ had been wildly successful defeating earlier versions of these same teams since the early 1930s. For example, the 1932-33 Rens won 88 straight games in 86 days. The Rens were known far and wide. They were ubiquitous throughout the Midwest and synonymous with winning, so the league invited them “in”.

Few anticipated that the 1948-49 season would be the N.B.L.’s last. However, the B.A.A. was also collapsing, and they were pimping the Rens as well, often booking Douglas’ team to play the front end of scheduled twin games featuring its own franchises.

According to historian Susan Rayl, “with the Rens, B.A.A. doubleheaders drew 7,000, but without the Rens, they barely drew 2,000.”

“The lily-white B.A.A. will gladly use the Globetrotters or the Rens to draw in the crowds, but draws a rigid line on Negro players or Negro teams playing in the league,” complained the People’s Voice, a black newspaper, according to Rayl.

The 1948-49 season would be the B.A.A.’s last one too. That’s because the two whites-only leagues – the N.B.L. and the B.A.A. – agreed to merge the following season, forming a new league, the National Basketball Association.

In the merger talks the N.B.L. – which included the Dayton Rens – pushed its weight around, insisting “only on a merger, not any other type of agreement.” But when it came to insisting on which of its teams would be included in the merger, the N.B.L. chose only 8 of its 9 teams.

Care to guess which franchise was left out? Yes, the Dayton Rens. To justify their omission, the N.B.L. simply voided the franchise agreement it had with Dayton, citing their last place finish.

This was shameful trickery, effectively robbing history of the chance to answer one of the biggest “what if’s” in the archives of sport. The lineup of the Dayton Rens included future Basketball Hall of Fame member William “Pop” Gates, future N.B.A. players Nathaniel Clifton and Hank DeZonie, future New York City Basketball Hall of Fame member Eddie Younger, all-time great Harlem Globetrotters player Roscoe “Duke” Cumberland, future Long Island University Sports Hall of Fame member William “Dolly” King, and future Indiana Basketball Hall of Fame member George Crowe.

This makes me wonder … what if Douglas had saved his best lineups for those regular season N.B.L. games? The New York Rens had won 88 straight games once before as an independent team; why not give your best shot at trying to win 40 straight in the N.B.L.? Instead, the Syracuse Nationals made the Eastern Division playoffs with only 40 wins.

Had the Dayton Rens made the playoffs instead, then maybe the N.B.L. brass wouldn’t have had any excuses to let them go. If that had been the case then, as a result of the N.B.L.–B.A.A. merger, the Rens would have joined the N.B.A.

Wow!

Except for one minor detail. Douglas and everyone else knew that racism had already neutered the B.A.A. into inaction. They had turned down Bob Douglas’ effort to have the New York Rens join the league during the previous season, despite pleas from future Hall of Fame member Joe Lapchick, then the head coach of the B.A.A.’s leading franchise, the New York Knickerbockers.

Douglas, who had played it straight and done everything by the book during his entire 25-year tenure as the Rens owner, and who had every reason to believe his team would be accepted, was at the meeting and was asked to leave the room for the owners’ vote.

He waited patiently outside the conference room door. It was a door, symbolically, which he would only ever be able to knock upon, but never enter. The answer was “no.” Not surprisingly, Douglas was reportedly crushed by the decision.

New York Rens owner Robert "Bob" Douglas, circa 1940.

New York Rens owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, circa 1940.

Was his effort just too much of an uphill struggle? Apparently so. Behind the scenes, Globetrotters’ owner Saperstein had vested financial ties to both the N.B.L. and the B.A.A. He wanted a lock on pro African American basketball talent and therefore had an unwritten agreement with the owners of both leagues.

In return for the Globetrotters’ participation in their doubleheaders, they would never hire black players. Meanwhile, an essential – and popular – aspect of the Globetrotters’ approach was to “clown” during games. Douglas wanted no part of this for the Rens. Yet, the ‘Trotters were succeeding financially and Saperstein could afford to dangle attractive contracts. As a result, the best black players were jumping to his team.

The Rens couldn’t compete with Globetrotter salaries. Meanwhile, adding to his lockdown, Saperstein’s back room agreements with those same owners effectively blocked Douglas from booking large capacity arenas they controlled.

So that’s how it went down.

On the surface, the New York Rens entré into the National Basketball League was a breakthrough for Bob Douglas and for the race. In reality, the team masqueraded as the Dayton Rens for half of a failed season and was shut out of the real deal – the chance to join the N.B.A.

After that, Douglas retired from pro basketball ownership and the team known as the New York Renaissance aka “Harlem Rens” folded.

Meanwhile, the N.B.A. operated its inaugural 1949-50 season without any African American players, as planned. However, during the off season, certain owners had changed their minds. One of them, New York Knicks owner Ned Irish, threatened to abandon the league if he were not allowed to sign blacks.

Despite strong internal objections the N.B.A. eventually relented, adding three African American players for its 1950-51 season. They were former Rens and Globetrotters player Clifton, former Duquesne University and Globetrotters star Chuck Cooper, and West Virginia State University star Earl Lloyd.

Without a monopoly on black talent, Saperstein, for survival, veered sharply in the direction of comedy, which eventually brought him and the Globetrotters to levels of success that no one ever could have unimagined.

Though shut out and heartbroken, Douglas’ work was not in vain. His passion and resolve over the course of a generation had created the chance to knock on that door. Though that door didn’t open right away, his knocking made the hinges come loose.

The 1932-33 New York Renaissance basketball team was enshrined collectively into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963. Robert “Bob” Douglas was enshrined as a contributor in 1972.