With the NBA playoffs looming and the current hoopla surrounding the NCAA’s March Madness, the New York Historical Society was prescient to mount an exhibition about amateur and professional basketball teams that competed in and around the city and country from 1904 to 1950.
At the center of the exhibit “Black Fives” is the legendary New York Renaissance, or the Rens, whose home court was the now long-abandoned Renaissance Ballroom that nearly abuts Abyssinian Baptist Church.
The exhibit, which is the result of the tireless and diligent research of Claude Johnson, will stand until July 20, and a recent article in The New York Times divulged much of the work that went into preparing and presenting it.
Find out more: Two of the books cited above by the late Arthur Ashe and Nelson George are good sources with which to begin. The articles by sports writers such as Bill Rhoden and Chris Broussard of The New York Times provide additional insight on the players and the history of Blacks in basketball.
Discussion: The exhibit at the New-York Historical Society is also a good place to continue your understanding of the history of Blacks in basketball, and those unable to attend in person can gather a glimmer of the exhibit online. Why Blacks were excluded from the sport is an interesting topic to examine the extent of racism in America.
Place in context: What events do you feel played a role in the integration of sports in the 1950s? Certainly, the Civil Rights Movement is the key to comprehending this significant era of change.
What was missing from the article was more about the Rens, who predated the founding of the NBA that excluded Black players until the arrival of Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Chuck Cooper and Earl Lloyd in 1950. I first read about the Rens in Arthur Ashe’s second volume of “A Hard Road to Glory.” A longer discussion of the team occurs in Nelson George’s “Elevating the Game: Black Men and Basketball.” And then I had an opportunity to interview Langley Waller and John Isaacs to gather their personal perspectives on the game and the men they played with and against.
Waller was never a member of the Rens, but he played against them back in the 1930s, days he recalled after establishing his lithography company in the basement of the Amsterdam News and printing posters for the great boxer Sugar Ray Robinson and others. Isaacs was a member of the Rens, and he shared with me his memories of performing with the team, particularly their championship years in the late 1930s. Both Waller and Isaacs are with the ancestors now, but their reflections of the Rens have been vividly captured by George and Chris Broussard.
As Isaacs told me and the Broussards, the Rens (founded in the early 1920s) won 88 straight games in 1933, even defeating the Original Celtics. Their contests, played in countless venues across the country, were forerunners to the hilarious and often staged games between the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Nationals. “But there was nothing staged about our games,” Isaacs told me. “They were hard-fought games, and we often got the best of them.” Isaacs often cringed at the mention that the New York Knicks were the city’s first national champion.