My grandfather was a middle school teacher in a small southern town, and one of his many experiences included participating in his school's efforts to integrate. He was a quiet man, and we never discussed his experience in much detail. But I based on what little he told me, I know that the experience of integration was difficult for everyone involved. The kids who were integrated into his school came from schools that had been poorly equipped, staffed, and funded, and their lack of academic progress reflected the lack of resources and attention that had been given to their education. Integration also resulted in discipline problems among both black and white students, which was to be expected given the influx of so many new students during a period of such great tension. My grandfather believed that integrating the schools was the right thing to do, but he also considered it one of his greatest challenges as an educator.
Barnard School, Washington, D.C., 1955
By Thomas J. O'Halloran [Public domain],
Integrating professional basketball also presented significant challenges. The top white and black teams relied on different approaches to the game, with the all-white teams using more structured plays and the all-black teams incorporating more finesse, freedom, and improvisation into their approach. Economic issues also presented an important barrier, with the all-white professional teams wondering how well black players and their less constrained approach to the game would be accepted by fans. The NBA began to overcome these challenges when it began to integrate in 1950 with the drafting of Duquesne's Chuck Cooper, signing of the Globetrotter's Sweetwater Clifton, and the debut of West Virginia State's Earl Lloyd.
The addition of these men to the ranks of the NBA wasn't as earth-shattering as when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. College basketball had already been integrated for some time, and barnstorming all-black teams had traveled the country since the 1920s. Major professional tournaments, such as Chicago's World Professional Basketball Tournament, included all-black teams alongside all-white teams as early as 1939, but it would still be many years until the major league professional ranks would be integrated.
Photo by Bob Sandberg [Public domain],
The early 1900s were they heyday of barnstorming basketball. Among the most well-known teams was the New York Original Celtics, who traveled the country defeating most of their overmatched challengers. In a time before national tournaments and a single dominate league, the Celtics were considered by many to be basketball's world champions. Led by Dutch Dehnert and Joe Lapchick, the Celtics played up to 200 games each year, and finished their 1922 campaign with an amazing record of 193 wins, 11 loses, and 1 tie.
In 1923, in an effort to build an all-black team that could eventually compete with the Celtics, Bob Douglas partnered with Harlem's Renaissance Casino and Ballroom to create the New York Renaissance. His team, often called the Harlem Rens, would achieve their goal by defeating the Celtics for the first time in 1925. The Celtics and Rens both traveled the country, playing and defeating almost everyone who challenged them, while also playing each other many times in various towns across the nation. Among the Rens many accomplishments was an 88 game win streak from 1932 to 1933.
In contrast to the Rens, Chicago's incorrectly named Harlem Globetrotters were officially founded in the late 1920s and managed by white businessman Abe Saperstein. The Globetrotters were also a major basketball force, but their style of play included overtly entertaining additions like the occasional joke or tricky dribble to ease the sting of the home team's eventual loss to the barnstorming all-black team. Like the Rens, the Globetrotters also dominated their opponents, winning over 90 percent of their games between 1927 and 1950. They also continue to inspire modern-day NBA coaches, as recently described by Ball Don't Lie's Kelly Dwyer. Since their beginning in the early 1920s, the Globetrotters have become a staple of American basketball. From Goose Tatum in the 1930s, to Meadowlark Lemon in the 1980s, they have entertained fans across the world with their unique combination of talent and showmanship.
The most accessible record of matches between the Globetrotters and the Rens comes from the World Professional Basketball Tournament, which was established in 1939 to determine the best team in the country. Sponsored by the Chicago Herald American and held before the existence of a truly nation-wide major professional basketball league, the tournament brought the best teams in the land together. The Rens won the first annual tournament and the Globetrotters won the second. Another all-black team, the Washington Bears, which was made up primarily of Harlem Rens players, won again in 1943. The Globetrotters and the Rens never met each other in the tournament finals. However, based on the work of one researcher, it appears that the two teams matched up three times in the tournament between 1939 and 1943. The Rens won the first encounter, 27-23, in 1939, the Globetrotters won the second, 37-36, in 1940, and the third, 35-24, in 1944.
World Professional Basketball
The Globetrotters and Renaissance had different perspectives on integrating major league professional basketball. While the black-owned Rens wanted an integrated pro league and actively pushed for it, the white-owned Globetrotters were strongly against integration. But despite the resistance of the Globetrotters, the NBA integrated in 1950.
As we'll see in part II of TBCB's spotlight on integration, the Original Celtics and Harlem Rens both played important roles in integrating the NBA. But why were the Globetrotters so against it and why did their resistance strike such fear into NBA owners? Stay tuned for the answers to these and more questions.