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The NY Rens Were The ‘Greatest Basketball Team You Have Never Heard Of’

Their home court was a dance floor. John Wooden, who played against them, said he’d never seen better team basketball. And yet the NY Rens are still unknown even to hardcore fans.

03.19.16 4:00 AM ET

As NCAA’s March Madness builds to the Final Four on April 4, the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame is counting down to its announcement that day welcoming new inductees.

Visiting the Hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, and reading the plaques yields some surprises. There, as expected, are Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain. But who are Robert L. Douglas, “Pop” Gates, and “Tarzan” Cooper? You expect to see the 1992 United States Olympic “Dream Team” and The Harlem Globetrotters, but who or what is the New York Renaissance? The answer showcases basketball and American sports at their best.

Douglas—dubbed “The Father of Black Basketball”—was the owner of the pre-NBA Black Professional League’s greatest team, and Gates and Cooper were among its brightest stars. From 1922 to 1949, the New York Renaissance—or, more commonly, just the New York Rens—barnstormed the country, crushing opponents with a blinding, infuriating passing game.

Despite being spawned by segregation, the Rens fielded so many dazzling, dominant quintets that they made their all-black designation a badge of honor. During a time of oppression, this black team built black pride by repeatedly beating whites, including the formidable, lily-white, Boston Celtics.

At their peak, starting in 1929 when Charles “Tarzan” Cooper became their center, the Rens won 1303 of 1506 games in 11 years. During the 1932-1933 season, the Rens won 88 straight games in 86 days. When William “Pop” Gates joined fresh from New York’s Benjamin Franklin High School in 1939, the team won 68 times in a row, and won the World Professional Championship tournament.

What some call the “greatest basketball team you have never heard of” began as an advertising ploy for a Harlem dance hall, the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom. In the ’20s, Harlem was hopping. The Great Black Migration from the South was revolutionizing black life—and Northern city life. Harlem quickly became black America’s cultural capital, growing from a handful of black residents in 1900 to 200,000 during the ’20s.

The encounter of pent-up, displaced Southern blacks with the chaotic energy of the prospering, free, ’20s North produced cultural dynamite—and a dynamite culture. Not every woman was a flapper, and not every man owned a tux. Still, more Americans than ever were losing themselves in the city’s anonymity, kicking up their heels, enjoying their first tastes of leisure time and disposable income. Millions were watching sports, as baseball and other games standardized, professionalized, and mesmerized the average American male. Millions were worshiping celebrities like the slugger Babe Ruth, the movie star Gloria Swanson, and, in a break from America’s racist past, the exotic African-American diva Josephine Baker. While drinking booze secretly and dancing the Charleston energetically, many listened to the all-American, African-American art form, jazz. The historian Ann Douglas writes that if this was, in the author F. Scott Fitzgerald’s terms, The Jazz Age, “the age was black.”

Fittingly, fighting for new customers, the entertainment complex at 138th Street and Seventh Avenue joined with a basketball team to boost attendance. Originally established as the Spartan Braves of Brooklyn, the team became the New York Renaissance. Wild dances at what their self-promoting owners called “New York’s Prettiest Dance Hall,” followed the home games, which were played on the dance floor. The Rens, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has written, “were the first black-owned, full-salaried black professional basketball team.” They would become the best of “The Black Fives,” the all-black teams that preceded the NBA.

As the Great Depression hit, the Rens crisscrossed America, often playing 120 games a season. “To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball,” said UCLA’s legendary coach, John Wooden, who played on the rival Indianapolis Kautskys in the ’30s. “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.”   

Sadly, on the road, Jim Crow often menaced the Rens. Sometimes, armed, foul-mouthed racists barred them from hotels and gas stations. Often, it was more subtle. The players always sought to “Get 10,” a quick 10-point lead. “That was the 10 the officials were going to take away from you,” the Rens’ starring guard, John Isaacs, recalled.

In 1939, the Rens beat the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars to win the first World Professional Basketball Championship. Thrilled, Douglas gave each player a jacket proclaiming: “N.Y. Rens Colored World Champions.” Isaacs took his jacket, and cut off the word “Colored” with a razor blade.

“You’re ruining the jacket,” Douglas exclaimed.

“No,” said Isaacs, who finally made the Hall of Fame in 2015. “I just made it real.”

Eventually, the flashy but serious Rens started playing the masterful but comical Harlem Globetrotters to entertain. The team’s overall record when it disbanded in 1949, as the NBA solidified, was 2,588 wins, 539 losses. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, among others, believes the Rens’ wizardry helped force the NBA’s integration in 1950. “Too many people had become aware that not all of the best American basketball players were signed to play in the NBA.”  

Thanks to the New York Rens and others, sport’s meritocracy, star power, and sportsmanship helped dissolve racial barriers. Another Hall of Famer, the Harvard-trained, African-American coach and gym teacher Edwin B. Henderson—the “grandfather of black basketball”—spent decades in Washington, D.C., championing sports, particularly basketball, to promote community fitness and fight segregation with black talent and sportsmanship that epitomized a traditional, gentlemanly code of conduct predicated on dignity and equality.

In that spirit, the basketball establishment inducted the New York Renaissance into the Hall of Fame in 1963, a year when restrooms and water fountains were still segregated, the Civil Rights Act had not been passed, and racism was as Southern as hush puppies if not quite as American as apple pie. The Rens had played their way into consideration and respect as equals.

On April 4, when this year’s Hall of Fame class is announced, most predict the list will include Allen Iverson. His impressive play is hall-of-fame worthy. However, the impetuous, volatile Iverson boasted, “I would rather win than have good sportsmanship”—and showed it. In our age of spoiled brat superstars who are to sportsmanship what Donald Trump is to reasoned discourse, let’s honor the Rens’ class and not just their skills. They showed that you didn’t have to choose between virtue and victory. And, point by point, they made the larger point that it was time for Americans to fulfill the nation’s founding promise offering liberty, equality, and justice for all.