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Almost Famous

March 21, 2005
March 21, 2005

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March 21, 2005

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Almost Famous

This was a hot corner," says 89-year-old John Isaacs, surveying the forlorn intersection of 138th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem through the cracked windshield of his 1992 Crown Victoria. "Everything happened right here. Monarch Bar was on this corner, the Red Rooster was downstairs on that corner, and next to that was a place called Jock's. And this"--Isaacs nods to the southeast corner of the intersection--"this was the Renaissance Casino."

This is an article from the March 21, 2005 issue Original Layout

For two-plus decades, beginning in the Jazz Age, the ballroom of the Renaissance Casino doubled as the home court of the New York Rens, whom John Wooden has called the greatest basketball team he ever saw.

The last surviving member of the Rens team that beat the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars for basketball's world title in 1939 is John Isaacs, a 6-foot guard who was awarded a jacket that year with colored world champions emblazoned on the back. He promptly cut out the first word with a razor blade, destroying the garment but improving its accuracy.

Today, the Renaissance is in need of a renaissance. Its doors are steel-shuttered, its windows boarded up, its redbrick façade festooned with graffiti. Inside, an enormous crystal chandelier still hangs precariously above the dance floor, a festive totem turned mournful, like Miss Havisham's wedding dress.

"This place held two thousand people, twenty-two hundred if you squeezed," says Isaacs. "You had dancing, then a game, then more dancing, all for seventy-five cents. Or two dollars if you were a big shot and got one of the loges." And while the musicians who played the Ren have only grown in renown--Louis Armstrong, Count Basie--the names of the players have faded from memory. "Now," says Isaacs, "the rats play basketball under that chandelier."

But back in the day, the Rens barnstormed the nation by bus, playing evocatively named teams in chicken-wire cages. "The last cage was in Atlantic City," says Isaacs, "where the Vandals played."

In Philadelphia, against the SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), the Rens were required to dribble two-handed on the ballroom floor of the Broadwood Hotel. "It was called monkey-dribble," says Isaacs, who played six nights a week and twice on Sundays for $5 a day.

True, he did get $3 a day in meal money. But it was often impossible to spend in restaurants. Born in Panama but raised in New York, Isaacs had never traveled beyond Philadelphia until he joined the Rens. At the train station in Knoxville, Tenn., he was called "boy" for the first time. "My first experience behind the Cotton Curtain," he says.

At a place called the Tea Room in Indiana, the Rens sat at a table reserved for them and were immediately cordoned off from the rest of the restaurant by a Japanese screen. "Like animals in a cage," says Isaacs. "I left and sat on the bus."

Elsewhere in Indiana the Rens walked into a luncheonette and were promptly chased out by the owner, with a hunting rifle. "I always kept some hard salami, Ritz crackers and a small container of pineapple juice on the bus," says Isaacs. "If you didn't, you'd drop of malnutrition right there on the court."

In today's NBA, Ritz is a hotel, not a cracker. "They have to know whose shoulders they've been standing on lo these many years," Isaacs says of current players. "Know that you're very fortunate you came along when all of this was available. Soon, a new crop will come along and forget all about you. It doesn't stop with you, just like it didn't start with me. There were people before me and people before those people."

Every day for 40 years Isaacs would go out and buy the newspaper for his girlfriend, Gwen Carter. And when she died in 2000, "I figured I'd just keep doing it," he sighs, New York City's three daily papers in a plastic bag in the back of his car.

It's part of a routine that keeps him looking 30 years younger than he is, as does his work at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in the impoverished South Bronx, where Isaacs has counseled children nearly every day for the last 44 years. "Each day I thank the man upstairs for allowing me to be in his presence," he tells the kids. "And also in yours."

But then the last of the Rens, the team that is credited with inventing the motion offense, has always given more than he's taken from basketball. "I think each of us is put on this planet for a reason," he says, strolling across 125th Street in Harlem. "Some are great visionaries--everyone knows about them--but some are hardly recognized. They just do what they do in the community."

John Isaacs is one of the latter. But everyone ought to know about him. And we still can. On April 4, the Basketball Hall of Fame will announce its 2005 inductees. Isaacs is on the veterans' ballot. If he doesn't get elected, he'll be none the poorer. "I don't need anyone patting me on the shoulder," he says. It's the rest of us who'll be diminished. ■

• For a collection of Steve Rushin's columns, go to si.com/writers.

The last member of the Rens, the team that is credited with inventing the motion offense, has always given more than he's taken from basketball.
COLOR PHOTOSIMON BRUTY