Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Harlem Rens: Part 1

video
The cartoon images from the slide show come from Patrick Reynold's great collection
of New York City history called the Big Apple Almanac

The music is "Drop Me Off In Harlem" played by Louis Armstrong
The story of the Harlem Rens comes from black fives.com

In 1923, basketball manager Robert "Bob" Douglas made a deal with Harlem real estate developer William Roach, the owner of the new Renaissance Ballroom and Casino. Douglas owned and managed an all-black basketball team called the Spartan Braves, which was a leading contender for the black national championship title. But his basketball club had no home court. The Renaissance Ballroom, with its perfect location in the center of Harlem, its spacious floor, and its balcony seating that looked down from above, would be the ideal venue. Douglas asked Roach if the Spartans could play their home games at his ballroom in return for changing the name of the team to the "New York Renaissance" in order to promote the dance hall far and wide.
After some negotiating, Roach agreed. Douglas, now armed with a permanent home court, next introduced full-season player contracts to lock in his players, and the Big "R" Five became America's first all-black, black-owned, fully professional basketball team. The "Rens" attracted the best Negro talent in basketball. The team's original lineup included future Basketball Hall of Famers Clarence "Fats" Jenkins and James "Pappy" Ricks, as well as Frank "Strangler" Forbes and Leon Monde. All four of these men also played professional baseball in the Negro Leagues.
By 1924-25 the "Rens" had won the first of many Colored Basketball World Championships and thereafter proceeded to dominate not just black basketball, but all of basketball for the next 25 years. During that period, the Rens routinely beat white national champion basketball teams like the Original Celtics, the Philadelphia SPHAS, and the Indianapolis Kautskys. The irony is that the leagues in which these teams played did not allow African American players or teams to join.
That fact didn't stop Douglas and his Rens. They focused on winning, which they did by pioneering the motion offense, their trademark style of play that featured crisp passing, movement without the ball, disciplined shooting, and tenacious defense. In one stretch during the 1932-33 season, the Renaissance won 88 straight games in 86 days. That 1933 team, which included Willie Smith, Zach Clayton, and Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, was inducted as a unit into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963.
The peak of the Rens fame and success came in 1939 when they won the first ever World Pro Basketball Tournament, an event sponsored by the Chicago Herald-American, a leading newspaper. The Rens, one of only two all-black entries in the 12-team invitation-only pool, beat the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars of the racially segregated National Basketball League (a forerunner to the NBA) in the title game. The Rens 1938-39 championship lineup included legendary stars John "Boy Wonder" Isaacs and William "Pop" Gates, as well as Cooper and Jenkins (Jenkins by then had been playing pro basketball for over 25 years).
Winning the inaugural World Professional Basketball Championship title opened a lot of eyes, and soon afterwards a lot of doors began to open. By the late 1940s the racial barriers to which pro basketball leagues previously had clung to so vigorously began to fall. In 1948 the National Basketball League invited the New York Rens to take over the Dayton franchise, thus making the Rens (now called the Dayton Rens) the first all-black basketball team to join a professional league.
New York Rens merchandise
From 1923 to 1948, the Rens won 2,588 of 3,117 games - a staggering winning percentage of 83% sustained over a 25-year period! By comparison, the combined winning percentage of the Chicago Bulls, the Boston Celtics, and the UCLA Bruins in their best dynasty years only reaches 76%, and their combined all-time winning percentage isn't even 60%! To compare further, the Boston Celtics took 65 seasons to win that many games!
In 1972, Rens owner Bob Douglas became the first African American enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as an individual, in honor of his major contributions to the sport. Cooper and Gates followed, in 1977 and in 1989, respectively.
But that is where the Rens march to the Hall of Fame abruptly halted. Temporarily, we hope, because there are many other New York Rens players who deserve to be enshrined there. These include John Isaacs, Clarence Jenkins, William "Puggy" Bell, and Zach Clayton. (By the way, the number of Original Celtics players enshrined in the Hall of Fame, a team the Rens beat frequently, is far greater than the mere three Renaissance team members currently inducted.)
Through ever increasing exposure, advocacy, and activism on the part of journalists, historians, authors, family members, licensees, retailers, current and former athletes, entertainers, and others, the voting members of the Hall of Fame enshrinement committees will eventually become conscious enough to properly embrace this history.

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