The New York Rens were a team of black basketball players who traveled across half a continent and a quarter of a century before coming to rest in the Basketball Hall of Fame. From the time somebody finally started keeping count in 1927 until the team was disbanded in 1948, the Rens won 2,318 games and lost 381, a winning percentage of .859. Almost all of those games were played on the road, against white teams and in front of hostile white crowds.
"It seems like I spent my whole life on the road," says Tarzan Cooper, the Rens' center during the '30s. "When I look back on my playing days, all I see is that old bus. It was a rough ride in those days. Blacks couldn't stay in most hotels, and sometimes we had to drive 400 miles to find a hotel." In 1933, for instance, there were only three cities in Pennsylvania and one in Illinois where they played in which the Rens could spend the night or sit down in a restaurant. And yet that was the year the Rens set a professional record with 88 straight victories, a mark that no team has ever equaled.
Only one other team has ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame as a unit, the Original Celtics. The Celtics' roster was studded with names like Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick and Dutch Denhert, and the popular assumption is that the Celtics were the dominant team of basketball's first half century. A demurrer is offered by a former member of the Kautsky Athletic Club of Indianapolis, a player who went up against both teams in their prime. "The Rens were definitely better," says John Wooden. "They were as good a team as you would find in that era; as good as anyone."
But somehow they got lost in the shuffle of history. "Everybody has heard of the Harlem Globetrotters and the Original Celtics," says Eyre Saitch, another of the Rens from the '30s, "but when you ask them about the Rens they say, 'Who the hell were they?' Imagine that. Who were the Renaissance Big Five?"
The Rens took their curious name from the Renaissance Casino Ballroom, which was opened in Harlem in 1922, not far from racketeer Owney Madden's speakeasy, the Cotton Club, which catered to an exclusively white clientele. "I needed a home floor bad," said Bob Douglas, who created the team and ran it for 26 years, "so I offered to name the team the Renaissance, even though I didn't want the name. It was too cumbersome for a basketball team, but I took it and shortened it to the Rens."
By 1923 the Rens were playing every Sunday and on holidays, at the casino, sometimes before crowds of 1,000 or more. Because the floor was waxed for dancing before and after the Rens played, there was almost no running during the games; even jumping could be hazardous. The Renaissance prospered in this fashion for nine years, until the Depression brought ruin to the dance-hall business. When the crowds dwindled, Douglas realized that if his audience would no longer come to him, he would have to go to it. And so in 1930 the Rens went on a road trip that was to span 18 years and more than 2,000 games. By their second season on the road they had a 127-7 record. Their 1934 season record was 121-19; a year later it was 128-11; in 1939 they won 112 of 119 games and the professional world championship at a three-day tournament in Chicago.
Douglas, who was born in 1882 and died only three months ago at the age of 96, worked for New York's The Musical Courier as a messenger and porter for 23 years before he undertook the management of the Renaissance Casino as well as the team. He was ideally suited for his role as an impresario because he was a notably handsome and elegant man—and he was smart. It didn't take him long to figure out that he could make more money playing against white teams in front of white audiences than he could playing black teams.
As both an artistic and financial enterprise, the Rens were an immediate success; so much so, in fact, that in 1927 a white New Yorker named Abe Saperstein copied the idea by founding the Harlem Globetrotters. Saperstein, however, adopted the view that blacks should perform as cheerful, comic minstrels. It annoyed Douglas that the Globetrotters' vaudeville show survived long after the Rens were gone. " Abe Saperstein died a millionaire because he gave the white people what they wanted," Douglas said a few months before his death. "When I go, it will be without a dime in my pocket, but a clear conscience. I could never have burlesqued basketball. I loved it too much for that."
Douglas gathered a remarkable bunch of players for the Rens. From 1931 through 1936 the lineup was immutable, the same seven men against a haze of white faces. They were called the Magnificent Seven—Clarence (Fat) Jenkins, Bill Yancey, John (Casey) Holt, James (Pappy) Ricks, Charles (Tarzan) Cooper, Eyre (Bruiser) Saitch and William (Wee Willie) Smith—and they may have been the finest passing team ever to play the game.
The bedrock of Douglas' philosophy was that a pass was always better than a dribble. On Thanksgiving Day in 1937, during a game with the Celtics in Kansas City, the Rens protected a one-point lead for the last six minutes by passing so deftly that the ball rarely touched the floor. Douglas' other dictum to his players was to keep the customers satisfied. "We were smart enough to keep the score down and make the people think they were seeing a real game," he said. "They didn't know we were carrying the home team; it was good business to let the locals think they could beat us the next time around."