GOOD MORNING P.O.U.!
We continue our series on Early African American Basketball…
THE NEW YORK RENAISSANCE
By John Smallwood, from NBA Encyclopedia
The New York Rens began as the Spartan Braves of Brooklyn, then became the Spartan Five and finally in 1923 emerged as the Renaissance, named after the famed Renaissance Ballroom on 138th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. The Rens, as they were commonly called, were one of the most-watched traveling teams of the barnstorming era. Fans would fill auditoriums to root against them, often insult them and sometimes spit on them.
When the games were finished, their postgame meal often was eaten on the team’s bus because many dining establishments refused to serve them. All because they were African- Americans.
Many claimed that they were the best basketball team of their day. But they were hardly America’s darlings.
Founded by Robert J. Douglas, who is now referred to as the father of black basketball, the Rens were the first full-salaried black professional basketball team, and games against them became sure money-makers. Contests with the Rens were so lucrative that their archrivals — the all-white Original Celtics — refused to join the American Basketball League in 1925, in part because the league did not invite the black club to join.
By the time the Rens had reached their prime in the early 1930s, the Celtics were on the decline, but their games were still drawing close to 15,000 fans in the Midwest and allowed promoters to put a premium on tickets for games in New York. The Celtics and Rens also staged the first game between whites and blacks in the South, and it was the Celtics who ended the Rens’ 88-game winning streak in 1933. It was the Celtics’ only victory in eight meetings with the Rens that year.
The Rens were led during their peak years by 6-4 Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, whom many called the best center of his day. Cooper and 6-5 “Wee” Willie Smith dominated the inside, while the 5-7 Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, called the “fastest man in basketball,” orchestrated a devastating fast break. The outside shooting threats were Bill Yancey and Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, with John Holt and James “Pappy” Ricks coming off the bench.
During their barnstorming days, the Rens often would play two or three games a day. Douglas took care of his players, paying them $800 to $1,000 a month. Considering that bread was a nickel a loaf and an apartment was $60 a month, those were remarkable salaries.
The Rens had a road secretary, Eric Illidge, who carried a tabulator and personally counted fans because the team was usually paid a percentage of the gate. Illidge also carried a gun, although he never had occasion to use it.
“Eric would tell guys not to come out on the court until he had the money,” Smith said. “It was the only way we could survive.”
Not surprisingly, in a still segregated America, fans often presented a threat for the Rens. During a game in Akron, Ohio, Smith got into a skirmish with a player and the crowd became so incensed that fans attacked the Rens. The Rens gathered in a circle and fought off the mob until someone turned out the lights in the building and ended the brawl. The Rens were given a police escort out of town.
On-court incidents were rare, however. Honey Russell, a respected pro who played frequently against the Rens, once said they were “one of the cleanest teams I ever played against. They just played basketball.”
The Rens posted a 112-7 record in 1939 and became the first all-black professional team to win a world title in any sport when they defeated the Oshkosh All-Stars of the National Basketball League in the World Pro Tournament in Chicago. [They won again in 1943, when the Rens entered the tournament as the Washington Bears.]
In 1948 the Rens became the Dayton Rens and joined the NBL as a replacement for the Detroit Vagabond Kings, an all-white team. Still owned by Douglas, the Rens played their last game against the Denver Nuggets on March 21, 1949 in Rockford, Illinois. Their lifetime record was 2,588-529.
In 1946 East Coast arena owners began to form the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the forerunner of the National Basketball Association. Joe Lapchick, the Original Celtics center who had a long relationship with the Rens as a respected opponent, personally pleaded with the BAA team owners to include the Rens in the new league. The owners did not accept the Rens, apparently figuring that the world was not ready for an all-Black team in the otherwise all-White league.