The Greatest Basketball Team You've Never Heard Of

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In the opening chapter of his book, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recounts the time a reporter asked him what profession he would have chosen if he hadn’t become a pro basketball player. “A history teacher,” answered the 7-foot-2 master of the skyhook, who describes his favorite subject as “a living road map of where others have been, what mistakes they’ve made, and how we can avoid those same mistakes ourselves.” Abdul-Jabbar continues, “Even better, we also see what others have done well and can embrace their triumphs.”

The NBA’s all-time leading scorer’s appreciation for history shines through in the movie adaptation of On the Shoulders of Giants, which he co-produced with Deborah Morales and which I had the good fortune of seeing at a screening that Abdul-Jabbar attended in Washington, DC, earlier this week. The documentary tells the story of the Harlem Rens, the first all-black professional basketball team, who overcame adversity to win more than 2,000 games while barnstorming throughout segregated parts of the country from 1922-1949.

Morales uses 3D animation and other techniques to turn about 30 seconds of original, grainy footage of the Rens, a dozen newspaper articles, and a few photos into a compelling 75-minute production. Narrated by Jamie Foxx and featuring interviews with Spike Lee, Cornel West, and Maya Angelou among many others, the result is a beautifully crafted lesson about an important chapter in American history. Here’s a sampling of what I learned.

The First Naming Rights Deal

Robert Douglas, who had previously organized two all-black amateur basketball teams in Harlem, founded the Rens in 1922. Douglas struck a deal with the owners of the recently opened Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom at 138th Street and 7th Avenue that allowed his team to practice and play its home games in the Renaissance’s ballroom. Baskets were set up on opposite ends of the dance floor, which was slippery and nowhere near regulation size for a basketball court. In return, the team would officially be named the Harlem Renaissance, providing the casino free publicity and another form of entertainment for its patrons. For 55 cents, one could enjoy a night of jazz and basketball.

A 5-Man Jazz Orchestra

Some of the Rens’ greatest players in their three decades of existence included William “Pops” Gates, “Wee” Willie Smith, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, John Isaacs, and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins. The Rens helped revolutionize the way basketball was played with their hot potato-like passing and constant motion on offense and a smothering defense. The late John Wooden, who played against the Rens as a member of the Indianapolis Kautskys and later coached Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA, called the Rens the greatest team he ever saw and marveled at their passing ability. During one part of the movie, the Rens’ style of play is compared to a jazz orchestra. The center is the drum, the power forward is the bass, and the point guard is the keyboardist. During the question-and-answer session that followed the screening, Abdul-Jabbar described the style of play in today’s NBA as more akin to hip-hop, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Bring on the Globetrotters

While the Rens were fun to watch, their main goal wasn’t to entertain, but to win. In 1926, a new all-black basketball team, the Globetrotters, formed in Chicago. The team’s owner, Abe Sapterstein, added Harlem to the name strictly as a marketing ploy. Saperstein figured that whites would be more comfortable with black players who conformed to white stereotypes and were first and foremost entertainers. As Abdul-Jabbar told NPR’s Robert Siegel in 2007, Saperstein “did not want to go head to head against racial attitudes in this country.” He also didn’t want to go head to head with the Rens. While Saperstein publicly stated that the Globetrotters welcomed the challenge of playing the Rens, he privately refused to schedule a game against them.

Road Trip

In 1928, the Rens barnstormed throughout the Midwest to make a little extra money. By 1931, the team was traveling all over the country and playing 6-7 times a week. The Rens encountered hostile crowds and race riots in the South and it was often a struggle just to find a place to sleep. Nevertheless, the Rens won 88 straight games from January 1 to March 27, 1933. Joe Lapchick and the Original Celtics, another one of the Rens’ biggest rivals, ended the streak. The 1933 team is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Colored World Champions

The Globetrotters and Rens met in the semifinals of the first World’s Pro Basketball Championship, which was held in Chicago in 1939. According to Ron Thomas, the author of They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers, the Globetrotters’ comedy routines didn’t become their dominant style of play until the 1940s. There were few, if any, antics during the showdown in Chicago, as the Rens held off a late rally by the Globetrotters and rode the momentum of that win to the title. From the New York Times’ account of the championship game: “The New York Renaissance, smooth-working Negro five, defeated the Oshkosh, Wis., All-Stars tonight, 34 to 25, for the national professional basketball championship. The margin was characteristic of the Rens’ decisive march to the title in a field of eleven teams. The Harlem Globe Trotters gave the new champions their closest game, 27-23, in a semi-final.”

Douglas ordered commemorative jackets for his team that read “N.Y. Rens Colored World Champions.” As recounted in the movie and on NBA.com, Isaacs promptly removed the word “Colored” from his jacket using a razor blade. When Douglas protested that he had ruined the gift, Isaacs responded, “No, I just made it real.”

Breaking the NBA’s Color Barrier

The NBA remained segregated until 1950. That year, Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black player to sign an NBA contract, and Earl Lloyd became the first black player to appear in a game. Joe Lapchick, who befriended Bob Douglas over the years and was the head coach of the New York Knicks at the time, orchestrated the signing of Clifton, who had played for the Rens and Globetrotters.

What’s Next?

On the Shoulders of Giants is available on Netflix and Morales and Abdul-Jabbar hope to get the film incorporated in high school social studies curriculums. (A Teachers’ Kit is available for $150 on Abdul-Jabbar’s website.) As Leonard Maltin wrote, “It’s easy to say that a film like this should be shown to schoolchildren and budding athletes—as it should—but I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t respond to such a fascinating topic, presented in such appealing fashion.” Do yourself a favor and check it out.

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June 8, 2011 - 6:51pm
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