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.

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General Mills
10 Winning Facts about Wheaties
General Mills
General Mills

Famous for its vivid orange boxes featuring star athletes and its classic "breakfast of champions" tagline, Wheaties might be the only cereal that's better known for its packaging than its taste. The whole wheat cereal has been around since the 1920s, becoming an icon not just of the breakfast aisle, but the sports and advertising worlds, too. Here are 10 winning facts about it.

1. IT WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

The Washburn Crosby Company wasn't initially in the cereal business. At the time, the Minnesota-based company—which became General Mills in 1928—primarily sold flour. But in 1921, the story goes, a dietitian in Minneapolis spilled bran gruel on a hot stove. The bran hardened into crispy, delicious flakes, and a new cereal was born. In 1924, the Washburn Crosby Company began selling a version of the flakes as a boxed cereal it called Washburn's Gold Medal Whole Wheat Flakes. A year later, after a company-wide contest, the company changed the name to Wheaties.

2. ITS JINGLE FEATURED A SINGING UNDERTAKER AND A COURT BAILIFF.

Wheaties sales were slow at first, but the Washburn Crosby Company already had a built-in advertising platform: It owned the Minneapolis radio station WCCO. Starting on December 24, 1926, the station began airing a jingle for the cereal sung by a barbershop quartet called the Wheaties Quartet. The foursome sang "Have You Tried Wheaties" live over the radio every week, earning $15 (about $200 today) per performance. In addition to their weekly singing gig, the men of the Wheaties Quartet all also had day jobs: One was an undertaker, one was a court bailiff, one worked in the grain industry, and one worked in printing. The ad campaign eventually went national, helping boost Wheaties sales across the country and becoming an advertising legend.

3. WHEATIES HAS BEEN TIED TO SPORTS SINCE ALMOST THE BEGINNING.

Carl Lewis signs a Wheaties box with his image on it for a young boy.
Track and field Olympic medalist Carl Lewis
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Wheaties has aligned itself with the sports world since its early days. In 1927, Wheaties bought ad space at Minneapolis's Nicollet Park, home to a minor league baseball team called the Millers, and in 1933, the cereal brand started sponsoring the team's game-day radio broadcasts on WCCO. Eventually, Wheaties baseball broadcasts expanded to 95 different radio stations, covering teams all over the country and further cementing its association with the sport. Since then, generations of endorsements from athletes of all stripes have helped sell consumers on the idea that eating Wheaties can make them strong and successful just like their favorite players. The branding association has been so successful that appearing on a Wheaties box has itself become a symbol of athletic achievement.

4. WHEATIES HELPED KICK-START RONALD REAGAN'S ACTING CAREER.

In the 1930s, a young sports broadcaster named Ronald Reagan was working at a radio station in Des Moines, Iowa, narrating Wheaties-sponsored Chicago Cubs and White Sox games. As part of this job, Reagan went to California to visit the Cubs' spring training camp in 1937. While he was there, he also did a screen test at Warner Bros. The studio ended up offering him a seven-year contract, and later that year, he appeared in his first starring role as a radio commentator in Love Is On The Air.

5. ATHLETES' PHOTOS DIDN'T ALWAYS APPEAR ON THE FRONT OF BOXES.

Three Wheaties boxes featuring Michael Phelps
Justin Sullivan, Getty Images

Although a Wheaties box wouldn't seem complete without an athlete's photo on it today, the cereal didn't always feature athletes front and center. In the early years, the boxes had photos of athletes like baseball legend Lou Gehrig (the first celebrity to be featured, in 1934) on the back or side panels of boxes. Athletes didn't start to appear on the front of the box until 1958, when the cereal featured Olympic pole vaulter Bob Richards.

6. THE FIRST WOMAN ON A WHEATIES BOX WAS A PILOT.

Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Former Track and Field Olympian Jackie Joyner-Kersey stands with a poster of her new Wheaties box after it was unveiled in 2004.
Stephen Chernin, Getty Images

Olympic gymnast Mary Lou Retton became the first woman to appear on the front of a Wheaties box in 1984, but women did appear elsewhere on the box in the brand's early years. The first was pioneering aviator and stunt pilot Elinor Smith. Smith, whose picture graced the back of the box in 1934, set numerous world aviation records for endurance and altitude in the 1920s and 1930s.

7. IT USED TO HAVE A MASCOT.

Though we now associate Wheaties with athletes rather than an animal mascot, the cereal did have the latter during the 1950s. In an attempt to appeal to children, Wheaties adopted a puppet lion named Champy (short for "Champion") as the brand's mascot. Champy and his puppet friends sang about the benefits of Wheaties in commercials that ran during The Mickey Mouse Club, and kids could order their own Champy hand puppets for 50 cents (less than $5 today) if they mailed in Wheaties box tops.

8. MICHAEL JORDAN IS THE WHEATIES KING.

Of all the athletes who have graced the cover of a Wheaties box, basketball superstar Michael Jordan takes the cake for most appearances. He's been featured on the box 18 times, both alone and with the Chicago Bulls. He also served as a spokesperson for the cereal, appearing in numerous Wheaties commercials in the '80s and '90s.

9. FANS ONCE GOT THE CHANCE TO PICK A WHEATIES STAR.

MMA star Anthony Pettis on the front of a Wheaties box.
Mike Mozart, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The public hasn't often gotten a chance to weigh in on who will appear on the Wheaties box. But in 2014, Wheaties customers got to decide for the first time which athlete would be featured nationally. Called the Wheaties NEXT Challenge, the contest allowed people to vote for the next Wheaties Champion by logging their workouts on an app platform called MapMyFitness. Every workout of 30 minutes or more counted as one vote. Participants could choose between Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper, motocross rider Ryan Dungey, mixed-martial-artist Anthony Pettis, lacrosse player Rob Pannell, or soccer player Christen Press. Pettis won, becoming the first MMA fighter to appear on the box in early 2015.

10. THERE WERE SEVERAL SPINOFFS THAT DIDN'T CATCH ON.

Three different Wheaties boxes featuring Tiger Woods sitting together on a table
Tiger Woods's Wheaties covers, 1998
Getty Images

Faced with declining sales, Wheaties introduced several spinoff cereals during the 1990s and early 2000s, including Honey Frosted Wheaties, Crispy Wheaties 'n Raisins, and Wheaties Energy Crunch. None of them sold very well, and they were all discontinued after a few years. The brand kept trying to expand its offerings, though. In 2009, General Mills introduced Wheaties Fuel, a version of the cereal it claimed was more tailored to men's dietary needs. Wheaties Fuel had more vitamin E and—unlike the original—no folic acid, which is commonly associated with women's prenatal supplements. Men didn't love Wheaties Fuel, though, and it was eventually discontinued too. Now, only the original "breakfast of champions" remains.

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TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
The Sandlot Is Returning to Theaters for Its 25th Anniversary
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX

Few films from the 1990s have grown in stature over the years like The Sandlot. Though it gained respectable reviews and box office receipts when it was released in April 1993, the movie's standing in pop culture has since ballooned into cult classic territory, and you can still find merchandise and even clothing lines dedicated to it today.

Now you can revisit the adventures of Smalls, Ham, Squints, and The Beast on the big screen when Fathom Events and Twentieth Century Fox, in association with Island World, bring The Sandlot back to theaters for its 25th anniversary. The event will be held in 400 theaters across the U.S. on July 22 at 1:00 p.m. and 4:00 p.m., and Tuesday, July 24 at 2:00 p.m and 7:00 p.m. (all times local).

Each screening will come complete with a preview of a new documentary detailing the making of the movie, so if you wanted to know even more about how this coming-of-age baseball classic came to be, now’s your chance.

For more information about ticket availability in your area, head to the Fathom Events website. And if you want to dive into some more trivia about the movie—including the fact that it was filmed in only 42 days—we’ve got you covered.

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