At the corner of 173rd Street and Hoe Avenue in the Bronx, there's a worn little gym. On the south wall of the gym hangs a small wooden plaque. It honors John (Boy Wonder) Isaacs, a New York City resident still, and still a wonder, though no longer a boy. Isaacs earned the nickname more than half a century ago. A backcourt star, Isaacs led his high school basketball team to the New York City championship, then went on to be a standout with the 1939 professional world champion New York Rens and the 1943 champion Washington Bears, both of which were barnstorming teams with black rosters.
Isaacs has long been a local hero for his basketball feats. But the plaque commemorates something else. In 1983, 24 years after Isaacs retired from pro basketball, officials of New York's Madison Square Boys' and Girls' Club saluted his work with neighborhood youngsters by naming the gym at the Hoe Avenue Clubhouse for him. After he left the barnstorming life, Isaacs dedicated himself to helping kids.
In the Bronx, that's a life of constant trial and occasional reward. Isaacs has known several youngsters who died too young. He has seen others pass through the clubhouse and go on to the Ivy League, kids like Kevin Jones, who took skills he learned from Isaacs to Dartmouth. "It's an inspiration to me that he's still there, committed to the community," says Jones, now head coach at Alfred University in upstate New York.
As Jones implies, Isaacs is still a regular at "his" gym. Two or three mornings a week, in sweatpants, T-shirt and no-frills hightops, the 75-year-old erstwhile Boy Wonder races up the yellow and green painted cinder-block stairway that leads to the club's basketball court. In the glint of sunlight that penetrates the gym's dusty skylight, Isaacs, a divorced father of six and grandfather of three, jumps rope, hits a tennis ball against the gymnasium wall and practices his jump shot for the zillionth time. Isaacs says the regimen, which he undergoes before turning his attention to the kids, has helped him "stay in some semblance of shape" and maintain the 6'3", 193-pound physique of his playing days. It also has helped him win medals in tennis, basketball, Frisbee, and Softball throwing at the New York State Senior Games.
During this particular morning, Isaacs takes a breather between bank shots and backhands, and he looks back on his 22-year professional basketball career, and on the life that followed.
Isaacs was born in Panama in 1915 to a Jamaican father and a Panamanian mother, and he spoke both English and Spanish while growing up in Harlem. He learned his basketball in the city's parks. He led his Textile High School team to the city championship during his senior year and impressed Bob Douglas, founder and owner of the Rens. It was Douglas who anointed Isaacs the Boy Wonder and asked him to come in for a tryout after graduation. Douglas again liked what he saw and signed Isaacs to a $150-a-month contract in 1937. "He told me I was the only player he ever sent for," Isaacs says proudly.
It was indeed high praise, for the Rens, and other barnstorming teams of the pre-NBA era, were deep in talent. Although the nascent NBA first signed blacks in 1950—nine years before Isaacs retired-he and many other fine players never competed in that league. They nevertheless played big-time ball. "We were instrumental in taking the game out of church gyms and YMCAs and into the large arenas all over the country," says Isaacs. "We helped promote basketball from its infancy to the big business that it is today." Teams like the Rens routinely played more than a hundred games in a November-to-April season. In 1939, Isaacs and his teammates ran up an amazing 112-7 record and won the professional "world championship" by beating the Oshkosh All-Stars, a leading National Basketball League club, at a three-day tournament in Chicago. His basketball salary by then was $175 a month, plus expenses. Isaacs' extra jobs—on the assembly line at Grumman Aircraft and as a clerk at New York Life Insurance-helped support his family during the summers.
The Rens opened each fall on their home court, the slick dance floor of Harlem's Renaissance Casino, from which the team derived its name. Before and after the games and at halftime, Jimmie Lunceford's orchestra and other big bands played for the spectators, who paid $2 to watch hoops and cut a little rug. The Rens' road show, which extended for nearly six months a year, saw the team traveling by bus throughout the East Coast, the South and the Midwest, hitting small towns like Goldsboro, N.C., en route to cities like Atlanta, Chicago and Indianapolis.
The environs the team visited often were hostile, but Isaacs didn't cower. During one swing through the South in the early 1940's, Isaacs, who needed to get to Atlanta for treatment of a stomach ailment, nearly came to blows with a railroad ticket agent in Knoxville, Tenn. The man had called him "boy," and had refused to sell him a seat at the whites-only ticket window.
Isaacs would berate referees if he thought they were favoring the hometown squad—keeping it up even when the partisan crowds in the bleachers grew antagonistic toward the Rens. In those days of racial segregation, Isaacs and his teammates frequently were denied lodging and meals at hotels and restaurants. When an Indiana restaurant owner allowed the team to eat in the dining room but put a tall screen around the table, an indignant Isaacs left the table and returned to the bus, where he drank pineapple juice from a can and ate salami on Ritz crackers.