In 1943 the Washington Bears, an all-black basketball team, went 41-0 while winning the World Professional Basketball Tournament, the nation’s highest basketball title.

The 1942-43 Washington Bears, winners of the 1943 World’s Championship of Professional Basketball. Left to right, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Charlie Isles, William “Dolly” King, John Isaacs, William “Pop” Gates, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Zach Clayton, Robert “Sonny” Wood, and Jackie Bethards.

The 1942-43 Washington Bears, winners of the 1943 World’s Championship of Professional Basketball. Left to right, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Charlie Isles, William “Dolly” King, John Isaacs, William “Pop” Gates, Clarence “Puggy” Bell, Zach Clayton, Robert “Sonny” Wood, and Jackie Bethards.

“Winning the World’s title, the Washington team performed a feat that NO PREVIOUS WINNER HAS RECORDED. They finished the 1943 season with a perfect record having won every one of their 41 starts. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME SINCE THE TURN OF THE CENTURY THAT A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM HAS ENJOYED A SEASON WITHOUT A SINGLE DEFEAT.”

— Leo Fischer, Sports Editor, Chicago Herald-American, writing in the 1942-43 Converse Basketball Yearbook.

1943 Converse Yearbook

The 1943 Converse Yearbook.

In the days when using ALL CAPS in print really meant something, this write up said a lot, coming from Fischer, who was the chairman of the tournament itself, and considering that it was sponsored and staged by the Herald-American, one of Chicago’s leading newspapers.

The Bears, often called the Washington “Lichtman” Bears, were sponsored by Abe Lichtman, a successful local businessman who owned a chain of “colored” movie theaters around D.C. They played home games at the old Turner’s Arena, which once stood on the northeast corner of 14th and W Streets.

DC’s main basketball venue, Uline Arena, prohibited blacks from playing there, so Joe Turner, the white owner of Turner’s Arena, allowed the Bears to use his erstwhile wrestling facility. Lichtman’s movie houses were among the few where African Americans were allowed to patronize freely. Since his theater business kept him afloat, Lichtman had cash to spend during the lean years of World War II, which is how he acquired his amazing lineup of star players.

John Isaacs

John Isaacs.

Winning the championship was hard enough, but going undefeated was an especially difficult accomplishment when one factors in all the challenges the Bears had to face, both on and off the court.

In the title game, John Isaacs led both teams in scoring as the Bears beat the Oshkosh All Stars of the National Basketball League. Isaacs has been considered for enshrinement in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Other players on the team – which was made up of former New York Rens stars whose salaries owner Bob Douglas could not match during the lean war years – included future Basketball Hall of Fame members Charles “Tarzan” Cooper and William “Pop” Gates.

“Yes sir,” wrote Chicago Defender sports columnist Eddie Gant, “the Bears are the best.”