1948 press badge

A media pass for working press access to the 1948 World Championship of Professional Basketball, held at Chicago Stadium, April 8-11, in the final year of the tournament. The item is one of over 200 items in the New York Historical Society Museum’s upcoming Black Fives Exhibition. (The Black Fives Foundation)

This is a tale of two passes. Two very different kinds of passes, but connected to one another. One is a media pass to a history-making event and the other is an “errant” pass that may have changed history.

A Rare Artifact

The first item is a media pass for working press access to the 1948 World’s Championship of Professional Basketball. It is printed on heavy stock card paper, measures about 3″ across, and has a perforation for a lanyard-style fastener designed to hang around the bearer’s neck for easy identification, just like the way today’s familiar credentials are worn.

This rare press credential is one of over 200 important artifacts from the historical archive of the Black Fives Foundation that will be shown in the New York Historical Society Museum’s upcoming Black Fives Exhibition, which opens March 14, 2014 and runs through July 20, 2014.

The Event

The 1948 World’s Championship, the 10th annual such event, was held at Chicago Stadium from April 8–11 of that year, in what would be the last one of the invitation-only tournaments.

Out of nine teams entered into the 1948 pool, it came down to a title game between the National Basketball League champion Minneapolis Lakers, who featured future Hall of Fame member George Mikan, and the New York Renaissance Big Five, an independent barnstorming African American team.

Previously, the Rens had amassed a record of 110-10, in a season that included a 22-game winning streak [1]. Their barnstorming schedule had taken them to Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ohio, as well as Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and Georgia–road trips that were challenging, particularly below the Mason-Dixon Line where Jim Crow laws restricted access to the basic accommodations and travel resources.

The Rens’ tournament roster included William “Dolly” King, who had returned this season after leaving the team in 1946 to sign a pro contract with the Rochester Royals of the N.B.L., Duke Cumberland, an all-time great Globetrotter player, George Crowe, who had played alongside Jackie Robinson with the Los Angeles Red Devils pro team, future National Basketball Association player Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, who owner Robert “Bob” Douglas had borrowed from the Dayton Metropolitans pro team, team captain and future Basketball Hall of Fame member William “Pop” Gates, who had also returned after leaving in 1946 to join the Tri-Cities Blackhawks of the N.B.L., and future New York City Basketball Hall of Fame member Eddie Younger.

Mikan, the Lakers’ star 6′-10″ center, had been nearly unstoppable all season, but Minneapolis had suffered a dramatic loss to the Harlem Globetrotters in March, and now the Rens took note of how the ‘Trotters had pulled off that win, by double-teaming the big man to the point of frustration.

A newspaper clipping shows George Crowe (far left) and New York Rens teammates Dolly King (middle) and Duke Cumberland (right) trying to stop George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers

A newspaper clipping shows George Crowe (far left) and New York Rens teammates Dolly King (middle) and Duke Cumberland (right) trying to stop George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers in the final of the 1948 World Championship of Professional Basketball. The item, autographed by Crowe, is one of over 200 artifacts in the New York Historical Society Museum’s upcoming Black Fives Exhibition. (The Black Fives Foundation)

The Championship Final

Using the same strategy, the Rens employed King and Clifton, both powerful and physical players who were solid defenders, to double-team Mikan. However, this backfired when both men drew three fouls apiece in the first quarter and had to be benched. That left George Crowe, who, with a reputation for outstanding defensive skills, was assigned to guard Mikan.

The Rens were down 18-17 at the end of the first quarter. They went into halftime trailing 43-35.

Crowe kept the damage to a minimum, and despite 40 points by Mikan, the Rens were in a position to win the game, behind 57-55 to begin the fourth quarter.

With less than a minute to play, the Rens were down 73-71. The Lakers had possession, but Sonny Woods stole the ball and passed it to Clifton, who raced up the middle of the court to start a three-on-one fast break with the chance to tie.

A Questionable Pass

What happened next is the subject of speculation and debate on the one hand, or unpleasant memories on the other, and it involves the second of the two passes in this tale, that I mentioned earlier.

Clifton, with Rens teammates streaking to his left and right, threw a behind-the-back pass … straight out of bounds.

Unfortunately for Rens fans, the Lakers scored on the ensuing possession, icing the game. Final score: Lakers 75, Rens 71.

“He threw that ball away and that cost us the World Championship,” said Crowe, in a 1991 interview with Ron Thomas, author of They Cleared The Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers.

In 2009, more than 60 years later, Crowe–who by then was the last living New York Rens player– was still bitter. In a personal interview I had with him, he told me point blank, ”Clifton threw the game.” Crowe told me he was trailing the play directly behind Clifton and had the best view in the house of what happened. [3]

Was that errant out of bounds pass by the normally sure-handed Clifton intentional?

In reality though, the more substantive reason for the loss could be blamed on the Rens’ abysmal free throw shooting–they missed 12 out of 31 attempts. “Rens Blow Free Throws And National Pro Cage Title,” read that week’s Chicago Defender headline. There was stunned disbelief, since two nights earlier the Harlem-based team had hit 17 straight from the line before missing, in their tournament semi-final win over Gates’ old team, the Tri-Cities Blackhawks. Adding to the speculation about Clifton, six of those missed free throws were his own. Meanwhile, Mikan alone had made 12 of the Lakers’ 15 total free throws. That was the difference, right there.

What Might Have Been

One can imagine the disappointment, not just for Crowe and the other players, not just for the fans of the New York Rens, but also for team owner Robert Douglas. This was the last of these tournaments, and, more than anyone, he wanted to the Renaissance to go out as winners.

That’s because he had come this far, twenty-five years and counting–he’d fought and endured through the early years, through the Great Depression, through World War II, through financial hardships, and through the myriad of slights and rejections he and his players had to face along the way.

Had the Rens scored on that last possession and tied the game, momentum would have swung their way. Chances were strong that they could have pulled out the win. A win would have meant that African American teams had captured four of the 10 tournament titles.

More importantly, Douglas would have had momentum in his efforts to move onward. One of his goals had been for the Renaissance Five to join the N.B.L. or the Basketball Association of America. Instead, during the off season, his team was rumored for sale.

Settling

Finally, in December of 1948, the Rens reached an agreement to join the struggling N.B.L. under a new name, the Dayton Rens. But instead of joining outright, Douglas, lacking a strong hand, had to settle for taking over not only a financially failing franchise–the Detroit Vagabond Kings–but also its losing record.

“This is the first time a Negro quintet has ever played in the NBL and is considered a forward step by those who have followed the pro basketball situation over the years,” wrote the New York Age on Christmas day. But in reality, despite positive reactions, Douglas’ team was out of playoff contention before they ever suited up.

It would be the last season for the Renaissance Big Five.

Meanwhile, Clifton, with 24 points in the 1948 World Championship final, was a member of that breakthrough 1948-49 Datyon Rens team that joined the N.B.L.

Clifton’s Legacy

Robert Douglas’ organization folded after that season, with each of his players going their own way. Clifton signed with the Harlem Globetrotters for the 1949-50 season, then made history as one of the first three African American players in the National Basketball Association when he started with the New York Knicks in November 1950. Clifton, a dominant power forward, promptly led the Knicks to the NBA Finals that season, though they lost in seven games. He had eight seasons in the league, retiring in 1958.

For many years, both before and after leaving the game, Clifton was active in community affairs both in Harlem as well as in his native Chicago. He was well-loved and an accessible hero who made a difference, sometimes with his sheer presence. Today, the New York Knicks’ annual Sweetwater Clifton City Spirit Award honors community members who are local heroes through their efforts and contributions that make a significant difference in the lives of others.

Two passes, same event, each making history in its own important way.


[1] For more details, please see Susan J. Rayl, The New York Renaissance Professional Black Basketball Team, 1923-1950, Dissertation for Doctor of Philosophy, Pennsylvania State University, Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences, August 1996.
[2] The Chicago Defender, 17 April 1948, p. 11.
[3] Author’s telephone interview with George Crowe, 24 April 2009.