The New York Rens were a team of black basketball players who traveled across half a continent and a quarter of a century before coming to rest in the Basketball Hall of Fame. From the time somebody finally started keeping count in 1927 until the team was disbanded in 1948, the Rens won 2,318 games and lost 381, a winning percentage of .859. Almost all of those games were played on the road, against white teams and in front of hostile white crowds.
"It seems like I spent my whole life on the road," says Tarzan Cooper, the Rens' center during the '30s. "When I look back on my playing days, all I see is that old bus. It was a rough ride in those days. Blacks couldn't stay in most hotels, and sometimes we had to drive 400 miles to find a hotel." In 1933, for instance, there were only three cities in Pennsylvania and one in Illinois where they played in which the Rens could spend the night or sit down in a restaurant. And yet that was the year the Rens set a professional record with 88 straight victories, a mark that no team has ever equaled.
Only one other team has ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame as a unit, the Original Celtics. The Celtics' roster was studded with names like Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick and Dutch Denhert, and the popular assumption is that the Celtics were the dominant team of basketball's first half century. A demurrer is offered by a former member of the Kautsky Athletic Club of Indianapolis, a player who went up against both teams in their prime. "The Rens were definitely better," says John Wooden. "They were as good a team as you would find in that era; as good as anyone."
But somehow they got lost in the shuffle of history. "Everybody has heard of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Original Celtics," says Eyre Saitch, another of the Rens from the '30s, "but when you ask them about the Rens they say, 'Who the hell were they?' Imagine that. Who were the Renaissance Big Five?"
October 21, 1979
The Rens took their curious name from the Renaissance Casino Ballroom, which was opened in Harlem in 1922, not far from racketeer Owney Madden's speakeasy, the Cotton Club, which catered to an exclusively white clientele. "I needed a home floor bad," said Bob Douglas, who created the team and ran it for 26 years, "so I offered to name the team the Renaissance, even though I didn't want the name. It was too cumbersome for a basketball team, but I took it and shortened it to the Rens."
By 1923 the Rens were playing every Sunday and on holidays, at the casino, sometimes before crowds of 1,000 or more. Because the floor was waxed for dancing before and after the Rens played, there was almost no running during the games; even jumping could be hazardous. The Renaissance prospered in this fashion for nine years, until the Depression brought ruin to the dance-hall business. When the crowds dwindled, Douglas realized that if his audience would no longer come to him, he would have to go to it. And so in 1930 the Rens went on a road trip that was to span 18 years and more than 2,000 games. By their second season on the road they had a 127-7 record. Their 1934 season record was 121-19; a year later it was 128-11; in 1939 they won 112 of 119 games and the professional world championship at a three-day tournament in Chicago.
Douglas, who was born in 1882 and died only three months ago at the age of 96, worked for New York's The Musical Courier as a messenger and porter for 23 years before he undertook the management of the Renaissance Casino as well as the team. He was ideally suited for his role as an impresario because he was a notably handsome and elegant man—and he was smart. It didn't take him long to figure out that he could make more money playing against white teams in front of white audiences than he could playing black teams.
As both an artistic and financial enterprise, the Rens were an immediate success; so much so, in fact, that in 1927 a white New Yorker named Abe Saperstein copied the idea by founding the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein, however, adopted the view that blacks should perform as cheerful, comic minstrels. It annoyed Douglas that the Globetrotters' vaudeville show survived long after the Rens were gone. "Abe Saperstein died a millionaire because he gave the white people what they wanted," Douglas said a few months before his death. "When I go, it will be without a dime in my pocket, but a clear conscience. I could never have burlesqued basketball. I loved it too much for that."
Douglas gathered a remarkable bunch of players for the Rens. From 1931 through 1936 the lineup was immutable, the same seven men against a haze of white faces. They were called the Magnificent Seven—Clarence (Fat) Jenkins, Bill Yancey, John (Casey) Holt, James (Pappy) Ricks, Charles (Tarzan) Cooper, Eyre (Bruiser) Saitch and William (Wee Willie) Smith—and they may have been the finest passing team ever to play the game.
The bedrock of Douglas' philosophy was that a pass was always better than a dribble. On Thanksgiving Day in 1937, during a game with the Celtics in Kansas City, the Rens protected a one-point lead for the last six minutes by passing so deftly that the ball rarely touched the floor. Douglas' other dictum to his players was to keep the customers satisfied. "We were smart enough to keep the score down and make the people think they were seeing a real game," he said. "They didn't know we were carrying the home team; it was good business to let the locals think they could beat us the next time around."
The linchpin in the Rens' wagon-wheel passing game was Tarzan Cooper, whom Douglas found playing for the Philadelphia Colored Giants in 1929. In those days there was a center jump after every basket, and Cooper's 6'3", 220-pound frame and tremendous reach gave the Rens possession of the ball after almost every exchange.
Cooper, 72, lives alone in a run-down row house in the same neighborhood in South Philadelphia where he grew up. He has arthritis and high blood pressure and most of his teeth are gone, but he is by no means a pathetic figure. In 1976 while he was still tending bar on South Street, the Hall of Fame notified him that he was to be inducted once again into the shrine, this time as an individual player. Cooper was only the third black man ever so honored.
The backbone of any barnstorming team is the player who can pull in cash customers, and Pappy Ricks did that for the Rens. "He was one of the most natural shooters the world has ever known," said Douglas. "Ricks was the only man that I allowed to shoot the ball away from the basket, and he was so good at it that he could call his shots. Pappy called everybody Gabe, and if the ball was going in he'd yell, 'Twooooo, Gabe!' "
Then there was Billy Yancey—"one of the greatest shooters I ever saw," says Wooden. "Ricks was good, but Yancey was better. When you consider how difficult it was in those days—lighting was poor, the ball was made of leather and had laces, and as the game went on the ball became heavy and lopsided—the way Yancey could shoot, well, it was something." The way he could play baseball was also something, as he demonstrated at shortstop in the Negro Baseball League.
Fat Jenkins, the 5'6½" lefthander whom Douglas had appointed team captain, came as close to filling the role of coach as anyone on the Rens' roster. "He held them together," says Wooden. "Not only did he run their offense, he was the team spokesman and had command of the club." Jenkins compensated for his lack of size with remarkable quickness.
Casey Holt and Eyre Saitch were added to the team to fill holes, Saitch—a two-time national Negro tennis champion—was asked to join the Rens as much for his matinee idol looks as his ability. With those players, the Rens were fleet and strong but not invincible. Wee Willie Smith was signed in 1931, the year the 88-game winning streak began. When Smith joined the Rens, he stood 6'5" and weighed 225 pounds, and, says Wooden, "He was the meanest, toughest basketball player I ever saw."
"In all those years," says Eric Illidge, the Rens' road secretary and manager, "the referees gave us nothing. Sometimes we had to fight just to stay alive. Willie Smith may have broken a lot of jaws, but he never started a fight."
One memorable confrontation came in a game against a team representing the Goodyear Tire Company in Akron. "There was a player on that team named Schipp, who played for several teams in that area," says Illidge. "Nasty fellow, and evidently he didn't like colored people. He gave Willie a vicious elbow during the game, and Smith broke his jaw right there on the spot."
The referee ejected Smith but took no action against Schipp, who was, in any event, preoccupied with unconsciousness at the time. Illidge argued that it would be unfair to punish Wee Willie and ignore Schipp's contribution to the proceedings, and to everyone's surprise the coach of the Goodyear team took Illidge's side. The result of all this was that the two referees, their authority undercut, stormed off the floor. "That's when all hell broke loose," Illidge says. "We had to form a circle in the middle of the floor and fight back to back. I had my pistol out, and Fat Jenkins pulled out the knife he kept hidden in his sock. We were ready to fight our way out, but the riot squad came and saved our lives."
It could get pretty uncomfortable for the team after the game, too. When they didn't sleep on their bus, the Rens usually stayed in the fleabag hotels, battling bedbugs and body lice until sleep finally overtook them. "The Flit-gun was standard equipment with us," says Saitch. "On the rare occasions when we got to stay in a nice hotel, those of us who stayed sober would stand watch until the drinkers came back to make sure they didn't create any disturbance. All those hotels needed was one mistake so they could say that they had tried, but they couldn't have our kind around."
During the 1940s the Rens received $500 in appearance money and a percentage of the gate to play exhibitions against teams from the newly formed American Basketball League, the forerunner of the National Basketball Association. In 1947 ABL owners convened in Philadelphia to discuss admitting the Rens to the all-white league.
"It was in the fall of the year that Jackie Robinson broke into major league baseball with the Brooklyn Dodgers," said Douglas. "I'll never forget that day as long as I live. I bought a brand new Studebaker and drove down to Philadelphia in style. When I arrived, they invited me to sit in on their discussion before they voted. I remember that at one point an Italian fellow from Providence stood up and said the league could get along fine without us. Then Joe Lapchick, who was with the Knickerbockers, got up in front of his boss, Ned Irish, and said, 'I may lose my job for saying this, but I'd play against the Rens any goddam day. To me they're the best.' "
Douglas was asked to wait outside while the vote was taken, and afterward League President Ike Duffy told him that the motion had failed. "When Duffy told me they wouldn't let me in their league," Douglas said, "it took a lot out of me." The next year he turned the team over to Illidge. In 1948 the league apparently reconsidered its position and offered Illidge a spot in the ABL if he would move the team to Dayton. Illidge reluctantly agreed, and then watched $10,000 of his own money go up in smoke when the Dayton fans boycotted the Rens' games for almost the entire season. At the end of the year Illidge folded the team.
"Progress was what finally killed the Rens," says Cooper. "Jobs were coming up for blacks, and we had to think of our futures. The year after we won the world championship, I retired and took a job painting houses for $50 a week, year round. Sometimes I'd find myself leaning against that ladder, missing those days when we were flying high. But there was always the road, and I surely never did miss that. Still, it wasn't all bad. Why, I suppose if I could just run like those young fellows out there now, I'd hop right back on that bus and head for the open road again."