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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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Pop Culture
Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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Big Questions
Who Was Chuck Taylor?
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From Betty Crocker to Tommy Bahama, plenty of popular labels are "named" after fake people. But one product with a bona fide backstory to its moniker is Converse's Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers. The durable gym shoes are beloved by everyone from jocks to hipsters. But who's the man behind the cursive signature on the trademark circular ankle patch?

As journalist Abraham Aamidor recounted in his 2006 book Chuck Taylor, All Star: The True Story of the Man behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History, Chuck Taylor was a former pro basketball player-turned-Converse salesman whose personal brand and tireless salesmanship were instrumental to the shoes' success.

Charles Hollis Taylor was born on July 24, 1901, and raised in southern Indiana. Basketball—the brand-new sport invented by James Naismith in 1891—was beginning to take the Hoosier State by storm. Taylor joined his high school team, the Columbus High School Bull Dogs, and was named captain.

After graduation, instead of heading off to college, Taylor launched his semi-pro career playing basketball with the Columbus Commercials. He’d go on to play for a handful of other teams across the Midwest, including the the Akron Firestone Non-Skids in Ohio, before finally moving to Chicago in 1922 to work as a sales representative for the Converse Rubber Shoe Co. (The company's name was eventually shortened to Converse, Inc.)

Founded in Malden, Massachusetts, in 1908 as a rubber shoe manufacturer, Converse first began producing canvas shoes in 1915, since there wasn't a year-round market for galoshes. They introduced their All-Star canvas sports shoes two years later, in 1917. It’s unclear whether Chuck was initially recruited to also play ball for Converse (by 1926, the brand was sponsoring a traveling team) or if he was simply employed to work in sales. However, we do know that he quickly proved himself to be indispensable to the company.

Taylor listened carefully to customer feedback, and passed on suggestions for shoe improvements—including more padding under the ball of the foot, a different rubber compound in the sole to avoid scuffs, and a patch to protect the ankle—to his regional office. He also relied on his basketball skills to impress prospective clients, hosting free Chuck Taylor basketball clinics around the country to teach high school and college players his signature moves on the court.

In addition to his myriad other job duties, Taylor played for and managed the All-Stars, a traveling team sponsored by Converse to promote their new All Star shoes, and launched and helped publish the Converse Basketball Yearbook, which covered the game of basketball on an annual basis.

After leaving the All-Stars, Taylor continued to publicize his shoe—and own personal brand—by hobnobbing with customers at small-town sporting goods stores and making “special appearances” at local basketball games. There, he’d be included in the starting lineup of a local team during a pivotal game.

Taylor’s star grew so bright that in 1932, Converse added his signature to the ankle patch of the All Star shoes. From that point on, they were known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. Still, Taylor—who reportedly took shameless advantage of his expense account and earned a good salary—is believed to have never received royalties for the use of his name.

In 1969, Taylor was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The same year, he died from a heart attack on June 23, at the age of 67. Around this time, athletic shoes manufactured by companies like Adidas and Nike began replacing Converse on the court, and soon both Taylor and his namesake kicks were beloved by a different sort of customer.

Still, even though Taylor's star has faded over the decades, fans of his shoe continue to carry on his legacy: Today, Converse sells more than 270,000 pairs of Chuck Taylors a day, 365 days a year, to retro-loving customers who can't get enough of the athlete's looping cursive signature.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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