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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 5'6�" 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."