As with any long-lived icon of sports, culture, and history, it is nearly impossible to encapsulate all of the thoughts and remembrances of the people who knew him into one service, one article, one story, one comment. So, I will continue to share topics relating to John Isaacs from time to time, starting with these.
Isaacs: New York Times Obituary
For those who didn’t see it yet, Vincent Mallozzi of the New York Times wrote up a fine obituary for John Isaacs. It’s an honor to be posted in the Times, befitting the man.
John Isaacs, Star for Rens Basketball Team, Dies at 93
John Isaacs, a key member of the Harlem Renaissance basketball team, which showcased some of New York City’s greatest black players during the Depression and captured the first world professional championship, died Jan. 26 in the Bronx, where he lived. He was 93.
Mr. Isaacs died 11 days after being hospitalized for a stroke he had suffered while doing the job he loved most, teaching basketball to children, said Frank Noboa, the director of the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx. Mr. Isaacs — Mr. I to everyone at the club — had worked for the organization for the last 50 years.
“Even though he had experienced great things in his life,” Mr. Noboa said, “Mr. I remained very humble.”
Lean and graceful, Mr. Isaacs was a star on the Renaissance of the 1930s, acquiring the nickname Wonder Boy from the team owner, Bob Douglas, who paid him $150 a month and $3 a day in meal money. A 6-foot-3 point guard, Mr. Isaacs led Textile High School in Manhattan to a Public School Athletic League championship as a senior before leaping directly to the pros.
He had “the most natural ability of any man ever to play for me,” Mr. Douglas once said.
Mr. Douglas, a prominent black businessman in Harlem, organized the team in 1923, naming it the Harlem Renaissance Big Five, though most fans just called it the Rens. At the time, the team used the Renaissance Casino ballroom in Harlem as its home court, sharing the floor with the big bands of Count Basie and Jimmie Lunceford.
Isaacs: Some International “Goodbyes”
Apparently, they really loved John Isaacs in Italy. Well, judging from articles in la Repubblica and Sportal written this week.
From the la Repubblica piece:
Isaacs, “guardia” di 1,83, è stato il primo campione “nero” della storia del basket americano. Quello che aprì la strada al senso stesso dell’Nba, allo strapotere fisico ed economico degli atleti di colore, a una specie di dominio della razza costruito sui terzi tempi, sulle magie tecniche, sul valore simbolico di certe figure di culto (Chamberlain, Erving, Johnson, Jordan, O’Neal, James), che hanno cambiato l’idea del nero che si riscatta, come fu per i pugili: i neri del basket, e a seguire quelli del football e dell’atletica, sono i principi dello sport americano, sono il suo motore più efficace. Sono quelli che giocano, si spostano, faticano di più. E guadagnano di più.
Isaacs: My Unedited Funeral Service Comments
I had some requests for the unedited version of my prepared comments at the funeral service of John Isaacs, which took place at Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Harlem on Saturday, January 31.
In case you are not familiar with that church, it’s diagonally across the intersection from the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (a.k.a. the Schomburg Library). Fitting it was that Mr. I’s funeral was there, so close to where so much of my first research about the Black Fives Era took place. And he was like a walking research center all by himself.
Mr. Isaacs’ passing is like losing a great library…..Gee, So many books I didn’t read!!! However I’m ever so greatful for the ones I did!!!
That comment from a reader of this blog says it all. The probably inadvertent misspelling of the word “grateful” to “greatful” is appropriate, even if “technically” incorrect.
So, here is what I wrote. I shortened my comments during the service because — in a moment of lack of presence — I allowed myself to feel the time pressure, since I was first on the list of persons on the program that were to give tributes. The pressure was an illusion that I regret, not only because everyone else after me took way longer than I did (I was trying to abide by the requested three-minute time limit) but also because it didn’t matter what the time limit was — John Isaacs was my friend, and people were there to hear what I had to say about it.
Ladies and gentlemen, distinguished guests, Reverend Callender, the family, the extended family, and the friends and loved ones of John Isaacs.
Thank you, it’s an honor and a privilege to be here. It’s an honor and a privilege to have known John Isaacs.
It’s impossible to find all the words to say when there are so many stories to tell.
Now we know what it feels like to be John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs.
But, now what? What do we do now? I’ll answer that in a minute. First, I want to mention that I met John in 1996 while researching the many African American basketball teams that played before the NBA. John was a role model, a mentor, a colleague, and a friend.
I say colleague because he was our company spokesperson. My company is called Black Fives, Inc., and it’s all about preserving, teaching, and promoting the history of the pioneers of black basketball — men like John Isaacs. We take their lessons and fast forward to today, to make history now -– we need this today more than ever. John helped me do that. You might say that John was the Michael Jordan of our company. More accurately, Michael Jordan is like the John Isaacs of Nike. Speaking of Nike, one of the most wonderful experiences I ever had was flying with John out to Oregon to get a tour of Nike Headquarters and meet with their executives, with whom I was able to arrange a special contract for John that paid him more than what he earned during his entire pro basketball career.
I say role model, mentor, and friend because John touched people’s lives, including my own. Anyone that ever knew him has at least one “John Isaacs” story to tell. I’m blessed to have had the chance to know John, to show him how much I loved him, and to demonstrate how much he meant to me.
I challenge each of us to honor our own ideas –- especially the ones we come up with today (and last night), and to talk about them, and write them down, and commit to them, and trust them. Because, since those ideas emanated in these moments, it means John Isaacs helped inspire them. We heard last night that energy never dissipates, it just takes another form. So, where do you think his energy went? Into us. Into our ideas. Into the words we say to one another, and into how we go out into the world after today.
Whenever we miss John Isaacs, let’s honor our own ideas.
Let’s remember to honor all of the other African American basketball teams. The Los Angeles Red Devils, featuring Jackie Robinson, the Philadelphia Panthers, which featured Hall of Fame member Tarzan Cooper before he joined the Rens, the Chicago Crusaders, featuring Harlem’s own Fats Jenkins, the Washington 12th Streeters, featuring Edwin Henderson, the father of black basketball, and the Independent Pleasure Club of New Jersey, who helped pioneer the social aspect of the game. Because the more that people know about any of these teams, the more they’ll learn about the Rens, and the more they know about the Rens, the more they’ll learn about John Isaacs. When they do that, then they learn more about us.
Will the New York Knicks wear Rens uniforms to pay homage a few times a year to a team that paved the way for the NBA? Will the Lakers wear the Red Devils? The Sixers and the Panthers? The Bulls and the Crusaders? The Nets wearing Pleasure Club jerseys? The Wizards wearing 12th Streeters?
How will that feel? You see, we need not be afraid of success. We’re worth it. We want NBA fans to talk about the Rens. We want the media to talk about the Rens. We want the President of the United States to talk about the Rens.
That photograph immortalizes John. So does this service. So does the John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs Scholarship Fund. But really, WE immortalize John.
John Isaacs lives on in the stories WE will tell about him. We become the clones of Mr. Isaacs. So if you find yourself talking a whole lot — telling long stories — that’s good! The more often told, the bigger they get.
How many of you remember the story John used to tell about the big white guy punching him in the gut, and on the next jump ball Mr. I nailed him right back but even harder? He told that guy, “Not bad for a rookie, huh?” Remember that one?
Well, I could get John to tell that story like pressing a button, and all I had to do was say, “John, do you remember a guy named Pete Preboski?”
Just who is Pete Preboski? I’ll answer that by reading a portion of an article I found once during my research.
RENS UPSET BY ALL STARS
Oshkosh Evens Series With Invaders by 44-33 Win
OSHKOSH, February 27, 1937
The Oshkosh All Stars, paced by Edwards, star center, tonight defeated the New York Renaissance five, 44-33, to even the current series for the national professional basketball title at two games each. The finale of the series will be played at Green Bay tomorrow at 3pm.
Although the action was fast throughout, an outbreak of slugging and rough play, which brought a large portion of the sellout crowd onto the floor, was the highlight of the bitterly contested battle. The trouble started when Isaacs, Rens center, was accused of roughing up Pete Preboski, All Stars forward. This started some general “swinging” in which many fans joined. Police and officials, however, quelled the near riot in time to prevent serious injury.
The Rens went on to win that series.
So, John wasn’t telling tall tales. His stories were real. The more often told, the realer they got.
I want to finish with a poem called “A Sportsman’s Prayer” that was published in the 1930s in the sports section of our own Amsterdam News.
A SPORTSMAN’S PRAYER
If I am victor in the fray,
Let me not boast about how good
Or great I am, grant I may
Take victory as a sportsman should;
And if defeat’s hard road I tread,
If fate and fortune serve me ill,
Then let me raise my battered head,
And smile, and be a sportsman still
NOW, please turn to your neighbor and say, “I love you with all my heart.” When you say that, when you hug them, you are hugging a part of John Isaacs that’s within each of us now.
Isaacs: Some Other Writeups
A nice article remembering John Isaacs by The Sports Scribe, Jason Clinkscales, which included this poignant segment:
I thought I had some handle on basketball history until Mr. I essentially schooled me a few times off the air. However, he was one of those guys who gave the respect he received, regardless of generational views.
Mr. I, from afar, was more than a former athlete, but someone whose heart truly belonged to the game and to the City.
Thank you, Mr. I.
It really couldn’t be said much better than that. But let’s keep the story telling going anyway. :-)
Isaacs: The Brooklyn Daily Eagle
A wonderful commentary in remembrance of John Isaacs by Eddie Mayrose of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was published in that historic newspaper last week:
Last Saturday night, prior to the start of Knicks-Hawks at The Garden, there was a moment of silence for Mr. John Isaacs, the last surviving member of the Harlem Rens. I’m sure that many in the crowd as well as a lot of you reading this column have no idea who he was. Fortunately for me, my sons and hundreds of others who were taught lessons about basketball and life by this quiet hero, we do.
Coach Isaacs signed a contract in 1936 to play professionally with the New York Renaissance, a team of all black players named for the Renaissance Ballroom where they played their home games. A barnstorming squad that played and beat white championship basketball teams like the Original Celtics, the Rens won a number of Colored Basketball World Championships. When Isaacs won his first, he took a razor blade to his championship jacket and removed the word “Colored.”
Among the Rens’ many opponents was legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who played for the Indianapolis Kautskys. “To this day,” said Wooden in a 2000 interview, “I have never seen a team play better team basketball. They had great athletes, but they weren’t as impressive as their team play. The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then and I believe it would be today.” Isaacs and his teammates on the 1938-1939 World Champions were enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963.
When his playing career ended, Coach Isaacs went on to become a youth mentor and recreation counselor at the Madison Avenue Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx, a position he held for more than forty years. He also co-hosted a weekly sports talk radio show, “What’s Going On?” that aired over the CCNY community radio station. Ever the athlete, he won medals at the New York State Senior games in Basketball, Tennis and Frisbee.
It was his annual trip with his young players to the Carnesecca-Sarachek basketball camp in upstate New York, though, where it was my good fortune to meet Coach Isaacs. I was a CYO basketball coach lucky enough to be on the staff and get a discount on the camp fee for my three boys. To say that I wasn’t in Coach Isaacs’ league, or any of the other coaches’ league for that matter, is an understatement. Yet, he always called me “Coach,” an honorific reserved for someone far more accomplished than I. His temperament, demeanor and quiet dignity commanded the respect of players and coaches alike and he made no concessions for the fact that he was in his mid-eighties. He manned a drill station each day and always handled a team in the camp’s highest division.
Despite his age and pre-disposition to teach the team aspects of the game to young men more inclined to a one on one, selfish brand of ball, Coach Isaacs was immensely popular with his players and usually won them over to his style in short order. He had no problem doling out the tough love, either, but often in his own humorous way. There were many lunch periods where I would overhear kids laughing out loud while recounting one of his folksy criticisms. My personal favorite was one he used to describe shooters with no regard for their low percentage of success. “That boy couldn’t hit a bull’s ass with a stick” was how he painted the picture.
Coach Isaacs passed away last week at the age of 93. He left a legacy as a role model to countless young men fortunate enough to meet him along the way. He was a role model for middle aged men as well, even though they may have only seen him for one week out of the year. Thanks, Coach.