The Greatest Basketball Team You've Never Heard Of

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.

10 Things You Might Not Know About the Invictus Games

Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Though the media tends to dwell on the private life of Prince Harry and his recent marriage to actor Meghan Markle, the Duke of Sussex has more on his mind than tabloids might suggest. Beginning October 20 in Sydney, Australia, and running through October 27, he'll be presenting the Invictus Games, a multi-sport competition he created in 2014 for wounded veterans. Athletes will participate in a variety of sports, including wheelchair basketball and sitting volleyball, in an attempt to earn medals and, in Harry's words, "demonstrate life beyond disability."

For more on the history (and future) of the Games, check out our round-up below.

1. IT WAS INSPIRED BY AN AMERICAN COMPETITION.

Prince Harry talks to a Warrior Games representative in the United States
Arthur Edwards-Pool, Getty Images

While on a promotional tour of the United States to raise awareness for his charities, Prince Harry was invited to appear in support of the British team in the Warrior Games, a competition for wounded service veterans that was held in Colorado in 2013. Impressed by the camaraderie and enthusiasm shown by participants, he took the concept and created the Invictus (Latin for "unvanquished" or "unconquered") Games. The inaugural event was held in London in September 2014. "It was such a good idea by the Americans that it had to be stolen," he joked.

2. IT'S FUNDED IN PART BY BANK FINES.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle stand on the sidelines
Chris Jackson, Getty Images

While the Invictus Games attract corporate sponsors—including Jaguar—to subsidize the operating costs of the event, funds for the 2014 installment also came from fines levied against British banks that were charged with manipulating currency exchange rates. Approximately £1 million (roughly $1,300,000) were made available from the fines, matching the £1 million Prince Harry donated via his Royal Foundation.

3. THE GAMES FEATURE INDOOR ROWING.

An athlete in the Invictus Games competes in indoor rowing
Steve Bardens, Getty Images for Invictus Games

Invictus invites athletes to compete across a range of adaptive sporting events—sports that have been modified to be all-inclusive for people with an array of physical challenges. In sitting volleyball, athletes have to keep one butt cheek touching the floor while touching the ball. In indoor rowing, athletes use a rowing machine to simulate outdoor rowing.

4. WHEELCHAIR RUGBY GETS INTENSE.

Invictus Games athletes participate in wheelchair rugby
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

If you have an impression that modified sports are somehow easier than their able-bodied counterparts, you're mistaken. In wheelchair rugby, athletes attempt to get a volleyball across a court and between two cones on the opposing team's side. They experience frequent collisions that appear to have more in common with demolition derbies than football, and participants are sometimes blindsided by the hits, which can bend wheels and axles.

5. IT'S NOT JUST FOR HUMANS.

A service dog shakes off water after a swim at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for Invictus

Because many disabled veterans rely on service dogs to assist in tasks of daily living, Games officials were more than willing to open their doors to the animals during the 2016 event in Orlando. At the last minute, organizers permitted the dogs to jump in the pool for an unofficial race. (Though it was held at Disney World, Pluto was not invited to participate in the doggy-paddle event.)

6. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN MADE AN APPEARANCE.

Bruce Springsteen shakes the hand of a war veteran at the Invictus Games
Chris Jackson, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Prince Harry's involvement has contributed heavily to appearances by a number of well-known public figures at the Games. Former president Barack Obama and Joe Biden attended the 2017 competition; David Beckham was named the 2018 ambassador. In 2017, Bruce Springsteen closed out the event in Toronto with a solo set. He was later joined on stage by Bryan Adams.

7. THERE WAS A GAP YEAR.

Prince Harry talks to representatives at the Invictus Games
Gregory Shamus, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

After the 2014 Games in London, Orlando hosted the 2016 contest and Toronto held the 2017 installment. There was no 2015 edition—the Games used a gap year in order for Orlando to raise the funds to organize the event. The competition will also skip 2019, moving to the Hague in the Netherlands for the 2020 Games.

8. IT'S GETTING MORE VETERANS INVOLVED IN SPORTS.

A group of athletes huddle during the Invictus Games
Harry How, Getty Images for the Invictus Games Foundation

Members of the armed services don't need to compete in the Games to feel their influence. Following the inaugural 2014 event, Help for Heroes, which assisted in recruiting British athletes for competition, reported that there was a 463 percent increase in veterans signing up for archery talent assessments and a 633 percent increase in powerlifting enrollees.

9. THE GAMES WILL BE STUDIED BY SCIENCE.

An Invictus Games athlete holds up a trophy
Paul Thomas, Getty Images for Jaguar Land Rover

Participation in Invictus appears to be a significant boost for the overall morale of contestants. And thanks to a grant from the Forces in Mind Trust, we'll eventually have some objective evidence of it. For the next four years, researchers will follow 300 athletes to assess their overall well-being compared to non-participants. Such evidence of the benefits of adaptive sport will likely contribute to a greater number of participants—and funding—in the future.

10. A COMMEMORATIVE COIN WAS ISSUED IN BRAILLE.

An Invictus Games commemorative coin features text in Braille
Royal Australian Mint

In honor of the Invictus Games' vision-impaired contestants, the Royal Australian Mint issued its first-ever coin with Braille text. Intended to commemorate and publicize the 2018 event in Sydney, the coin features a disabled competitor and "Sydney '18" in Braille. The $1 AUD coin sells for $15 AUD (about $11) and is limited to a run of 30,000. A gold-plated version is limited to 2018 copies and sells for $150 AUD ($108).

The Mongolian Princess Who Challenged Her Suitors to a Wrestling Match—and Always Won

iStock.com / SarahWouters1960
iStock.com / SarahWouters1960

In a lot of fairy tales, a disapproving father or a witch's curse stops the princess from finding Prince Charming. But things were a little different in 13th-century Mongolia. Any single lad, regardless of status or wealth, could marry the khan's daughter, Khutulun. There was just one caveat, which the princess herself decreed—you couldn't take her hand in marriage until you took her down in a wrestling match. If you lost, you had to give her a handful of prize horses.

Sounds easy, right? Nope. After all, this is the great-great-granddaughter of Genghis Khan we're talking about!

Born around 1260, Khutulun was an intimidating presence. According to The Travels of Marco Polo, the princess was "so well-made in all her limbs, and so tall and strongly built, that she might almost be taken for a giantess." She was also the picture of confidence. She had mastered archery and horsemanship in childhood and grew up to become a fearless warrior. Whenever her father, Kaidu—the leader of the Chagatai Khanate—went to battle, he usually turned to Khutulun (and not his 14 sons) for help.

Nothing scared her. Not only did Khutulun ride by her father's side into battle, she'd regularly charge headfirst into enemy lines to make "a dash at the host of the enemy, and seize some man thereout, as deftly as a hawk pounces on a bird, and carry him to her father," Marco Polo wrote. The 13th- and 14th-century historian Rashid al-Din was more direct, writing that she "often went on military campaigns, where she performed valiant deeds."

It's no surprise that Khutulun had suitors lining up and down the street asking for her hand in marriage. The princess, however, refused to marry any of them unless they managed to beat her in a wrestling match, stipulating that any loser would have to gift her anywhere between 10 to 100 horses.

Let's just put it this way: Khutulun came home with a lot of prize horses. (Some accounts say 10,000—enough to make even the emperor a little jealous.) As author Hannah Jewell writes in her book She Caused a Riot, "The Mongolian steppes were littered with the debris of shattered male egos."

On one occasion, a particularly confident suitor bet 1000 horses on a match. Khutulun's parents liked the fellow—they were itching to see their daughter get married—so they pulled the princess aside and asked her to throw the match. After carefully listening to her parents' advice, Khutulun entered the ring and, in Polo's words, "threw him right valiantly on the palace pavement." The 1000 horses became hers.

Khutulun would remain undefeated for life. According to legend, she eventually picked a husband on her own terms, settling for a man she never even wrestled. And centuries later, her story inspired François Pétis de La Croi to write the tale of Turandot, which eventually became a famed opera by the composer Giacomo Puccini. (Though the opera fudges the facts: The intrepid princess defeats her suitors with riddles, not powerslams.)

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