Basketball is a pastime that’s become as American as baseball and apple pie. And although legends like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant— and legends in the making like LeBron James and Kevin Durant— are largely celebrated by the masses, the players who provided the building blocks for their legacies remain unsung.
The Harlem Rens is known as the greatest basketball team you’ve never heard of. Massive words, backed by the NBA.com encyclopedia. The franchise began its epic run in 1922, and dominated for three decades. Over that period of time, the stats speak for themselves. The Harlem Rens’ record stands iconic at 2,588 wins and 529 losses. In 1939, the Rens won the inaugural World Championship of Professional Basketball against a white team.
In Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s book, Coach Wooden And Me— that made former President Barack Obama’s list of favorite things in 2017— the basketball legend shared Hall of Fame Coach John Wooden’s unwavering respect for the Harlem Rens, who noted that the team was the best he ever played, back in the ’30s. “To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball,” said Wooden. “They had great athletes, but they weren’t as impressive as their team play. The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then, and I believe it would be today.”
The all-Black, African-American owned professional team was part of the booming and bustling Harlem Renaissance. Owned by Black businessman Robert Douglas, the team was famous for the “Big R Five:” Zack Clayton, Robert Douglas, John Isaacs, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, and George Crowe. The team played at the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino in Harlem.
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Some of the many New York Rens stars who played for owner Robert Douglas, with a headline of perhaps their greatest single accomplishment—winning the inaugural World Championship of Professional #Basketball in 1939. There were 10 such world championships in all, through 1948, and #AfricanAmerican teams won three of the them. Which three? #newyorkcity #nyc #harlem #worldchamps #blackfives (Clockwise: Zack Clayton, Robert Douglas, Fort Wayne Sentinel newspaper headline, John Isaacs, Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, George Crowe.)
And just as the Harlem Renaissance is known for a style and flair that resurges decade after decade in fashion magazines, so can the Rens’ basketball style be found on basketball courts today. John Isaacs is noted for the “pick and roll,” and the team’s flashy style made way for the Harlem Globetrotters. Although they were the best team in the sport, due to segregation, they were not allowed to sleep or eat in hotels or restaurant while on the road.
How do we keep the storied legacy of the Harlem Rens alive? The Black Fives Foundation is an incredible source that provides a history of the team. Those interested in supporting the foundation can do so, and find an archive of artifacts of the team. And thanks to Instagram, you can see photos of the Harlem Rens via @nyrenaissancemen, an incredible digital time capsule honoring these great men.
As we gear up for NBA All-Star weekend, and watch the immense world talents in the Olympics, it’s so important to remember the rocky paths of the giants who paved the way for us to reach the gold, the Heisman, and million dollar endorsements.
We salute and remember the Harlem Rens, this Black History Month and all surrounding months to come.