Black players dominating professional basketball as well as other popular sporting competitions in the United States isn’t a recent phenomenon.
Even during the Jim Crow era where African Americans were viewed as inferior and weren’t granted fundamental human rights and allowed certain privileges through racial segregation, black athletes rose above all odds, and used the little resources they had to successfully compete against their white counterparts and edge over them.
The game of basketball has produced legendary, talented and highly decorated black athletes who dominated the game during their prime. That brings to mind names such as Wilt “The Stilt” Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Julius “Dr J” Ervin, Bill Rusell, Dominique Wilkins, down to Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James among others.
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Albeit deserving to be on the list, it is worth mentioning that there was a group of black players who were part of a historic team whose outstanding dominance in professional basketball during segregation, heavily influenced the integration of the National Basketball Association (NBA).
The team emerged at a time when black teams couldn’t compete against their white counterparts for accolades in national championships and could, in most instances, only play against their fellow black teams in colored competitions. In instances where black against white matchups took place, the games were widely promoted by pitching both races against each other to drive ticket sales.
Known as the New York Renaissance or the New York Rens for short, the all-black professional basketball team was the team to beat between 1922 and 1949. The team was “the first black-owned, full-salaried black professional basketball team,” according to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
The Rens, which was initially known as the Spartan Braves, was founded by Bob Douglas, an immigrant who moved from the West Indies to New York in 1901, according to Britannica. Douglas played for the Braves, which was then an amateur adult team but retired in 1918 to take over the helms as the team’s coach. As manager, he led the Braves to win the Eastern (amateur) Championship in 1921.
As professional basketball grew in patronage and became a lucrative business, it was just a matter of time for Douglas, who was confident in his team’s capabilities, to compete in it.
In a partnership with William Roach, a fellow West Indian who owned the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem, the Renaissance Big Five, which was named after the franchise, was born. As part of their partnership agreement, Roach allowed the Rens to use the venue’s facilities for practice and games on Saturdays in exchange for a cut on proceeds off ticket sales, according to Britannica.
The Rens played their first game before a packed crowd on November 3, 1923, against an all-white team known as the Collegiate Five, beating them 28–22. The main side attraction of the Rens games at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom, besides their showmanship, was the venue being completely transformed into a dancefloor for fans to dance and make merry after the games.
The Rens’ popularity as one of the best national basketball teams quickly spread, increasing patronage for their home games. They sold out tickets and regularly played against white opponents as those games pulled crowds.
During their highly successful run as one of the best teams in the United States, the Rens developed a rivalry with the Boston Celtics which was one of the best professional basketball teams at the time.
According to The Daily Beast: “Despite being spawned by segregation, the Rens fielded so many dazzling, dominant quintets that they made their all-black designation a badge of honor. During a time of oppression, this black team built black pride by repeatedly beating whites, including the formidable, lily-white, Boston Celtics.
“At their peak, starting in 1929 when Charles “Tarzan” Cooper became their center, the Rens won 1303 of 1506 games in 11 years. During the 1932-1933 season, the Rens won 88 straight games in 86 days. When William “Pop” Gates joined fresh from New York’s Benjamin Franklin High School in 1939, the team won 68 times in a row.”
Despite these remarkable achievements, Douglas still couldn’t get the Rens to join the American Basketball League (ABL), which was the most well-known professional league at the time as they were constantly rejected. While they were on the road for away games too, they were subjected to racial discrimination and prevented from patronizing some hotels and gas stations.
Nonetheless, the Rens proved they were actually the best basketball team irrespective of race when they won the first race-inclusive edition of the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939. They defeated the Oshkosh All-Stars, an all-white team 34–25.
The Rens were eventually allowed to join the American Basketball League in 1948. That was over 20 years after they were first rejected by the league. Douglas was also no longer manager of the team when they finally became eligible.
The team disbanded a year later with an enviable record of 2,588 wins and 539 losses.
Abdul-Jabbar asserts the Rens’ dominance and influence in the game was a huge contributory factor in the integration of the NBA in 1950.
“Too many people had become aware that not all of the best American basketball players were signed to play in the NBA,” he said, according to The Daily Beast.