Isaacs' roommate with the Rens was William (Pop) Gates. Gates and Isaacs guided the team's motion offense, which called for lots of passing and little dribbling. They set picks and screens and loved to score through the back door-maneuvers that are in vogue today. Watch the passing game of the San Antonio Spurs and you're witnessing the reincarnation of the New York Rens. Isaacs was the Magic Johnson of his day, specializing in pinpoint passes, usually to Gates, who was the team's premier shooter.
It was a playing style much admired at the time. Isaacs recalls seeing white high school and college coaches from Louisville sitting enthralled on the sidelines, sketching diagrams of Rens plays. Many who saw them considered Gates, Isaacs and their teammates among the best players—black or white—of the era. John Wooden, who would gain larger fame later as coach of UCLA, was a member of Indianapolis's Kautsky Athletic Club, and he played against the Rens in the 1930s. "They were the epitome of team basketball," Wooden says. "Each player played his role and they were all great. They played basketball as it should be played."
The New York Rens were admitted as a team to basketball's Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., in 1963. Three Rens—Douglas, Gates and Charles (Tarzan) Cooper, the team's center—have been inducted individually. Isaacs has not...yet. He was nominated this year and, in a letter supporting that nomination, Gates called his former roommate "one of basketball's greatest players." The lobbying was to no avail, but Isaacs' nomination will be considered again in '91 by a committee of seven Hall of Famers. The obvious problem is that the Rens are a largely forgotten team. There are no scoring, rebounding or assist statistics for Isaacs, because none were kept while he was playing. Nevertheless, Isaacs figures he has a chance, since Gates was inducted as late as 1989 and "there are still people on the selection committee who know about and played against us."
Isaacs' talents hadn't diminished when he left the Rens in 1941. While with Washington in '43, he helped win a second pro basketball world championship, and he was the Utica (N.Y.) Pics' most valuable player in 1947. Red Sarachek, who co-directs a summer basketball camp in Sidney, N.Y., was coaching Utica's archrival, Mohawk, in the early '50s. He remembers Isaacs as "a great player." Red Holzman, who would one day shine as an NBA coach, was a star with the Rochester Royals when he faced Isaacs and the Pics. He says the aging Boy Wonder was "a tough, strong guy who played hard. He stacked up well against other players in that era."
When Isaacs finally left the pros at the age of 44, he settled more firmly in New York City. He began working with kids at the playgrounds, and through the years his guidance took on structure. He is now called the director of outreach programs at the Hoe Avenue Clubhouse, but Isaacs was reaching out well before he had such a grand title. He taught himself to be both coach and counselor. He found avenues for his talents at the Boys' and Girls' Club and at the clubhouse gym. A dozen years ago he began working during summers at Sarachek's basketball camp, a job he continues to perform today. In 1972 he started a fund-raising campaign to send Bronx youngsters to summer camp, another effort he continues.
Isaacs, so long a barnstormer, still loves to travel. On a trip to Australia in 1988, he perfected a hilarious Crocodile Dundee impression, and the following year in Moscow he discovered that the fastest way to hail a Russian cab is with a pack of Marlboro cigarettes in hand. But the central part of his life is in the Bronx. After his morning workouts, he counsels not only teenagers but inmates from a nearby minimum-security facility, who spend two hours a day at the gym. The work is sometimes enjoyable, sometimes painfully frustrating. Three Bronx youths who used to drop by the Hoe Avenue Clubhouse died recently, all of them violently. The first was killed in a fight over a fake gold chain, the second in a drive-by shooting and the third in a gang war. Isaacs knows that life is difficult on New York's meanest streets, but this doesn't make the losses any easier to bear. "I try to tell these kids that it's easy to get into trouble but hard to get out of it," he says as he reflects upon the recent deaths. "They don't want to hear it."
His spirits lift again as he redirects his attention to basketball. While a pickup game proceeds on the gym's single court, Isaacs puts a group of college-bound students through a rigorous ball-movement drill on the sidelines. He's in his element here, upstairs in the club, teaching the thing he knows best. Sure, he would like to be in the Hall of Fame, but being in this gym that bears his name will do for now. "Getting into the Hall would be nice," Isaacs says. "It would mean that somewhere along the way, someone recognized the fact that I was one of the pioneers. But if I can capture the attention of a few of these youngsters and help them, that's worthwhile, too."