With the NBA All-Star Game almost upon us, with the college hoops season heading towards “March Madness,” it is sometimes satisfying to look back on the way of life that once existed in the game.
The New York Renaissance Five, better known as the “Rens,” was the first all-black professional basketball team. They existed before the Harlem Globetrotters and were a much different kind of team. The Globies clowned around; the Rens played to win and did they win! For their time there was no better basketball team in the world.
Put together in 1922 by Bob Douglas, the owner of the Renaissance Casino Ballroom in Harlem, the Rens won 473 games and lost just 49 times from 1932 to 1936. In 1933-34, they posted a record of 88 straight wins and completed the year with a 127-7 record.
Their home games were played on the dance floor of the Renaissance Casino Ballroom in Harlem. And when the games ended—some of the Rens would stay around and dance with the ladies and enjoy the atmosphere.
But most of their “away” games were one-night stands that they traveled to in their own custom-made, specially equipped $10,000 bus. On courts they were unfamiliar with, in all kinds of strange places, the Rens played great team basketball. That technique held the opposition scoring down and it also saved them steps and energy.
There were times that they played two or three games in a single day as they barnstormed across the country. They had to set up command posts in places like Chicago and Indianapolis and return from as far away as 200 miles after games because racial bigotry denied them hotel rooms. Their post-game meals were often cold cuts that they carried on the bus because so many places refused to feed or lodge them.
Their “road secretary” Eric Illidge carried a tabulator to personally count the number of fans at games because the Rens were generally paid a percentage of the gate. He also carried a pistol and told the guys “Never come out on the court unless I have the money.” It was the only way the Rens could survive.
Some of the famous players on the Rens included: Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Wee Willie Smith, Bill Yancey, James “Pappy” Ricks, John “Casey” Holt, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch and “Tarzan” Cooper. Both Yancey and Jenkins were also great stars in Negro League baseball.
The Rens disbanded in 1948, and in 1963 the entire team was elected to membership in the National Basketball Hall of Fame. The story of the New York Renaissance Five is a story of great success achieved in the face of bigotry, great odds, tremendous sacrifice.
Illidge, the man with the pistol, explained it all: “We would not let anyone deny us our right to make a living.”