"Back in the '70s, early '80s, we were going to be in a league that was going to be too black and America would never support. And we always felt that America was much better than that. And they are." - David Stern (via TrueHoop)In the pre-NBA days, the New York Renaissance featured an all-black squad that toured the country defeating almost all challengers. As discussed previously, Bob Douglas' effort to build an all-black powerhouse was wildly successful, as the Rens won over 80 percent of the 3,000 games they played between 1923 and 1949.
The Rens faced tremendous adversity both on and off the hardwood. On the court, fans sitting courtside would sometimes burn players with cigars or trip them with umbrellas as they ran down the court. Off the court, they often faced difficulties (to put it mildly) finding hotel rooms and places to eat. All of this was in addition to the physical challenges that came along with playing one or two games almost every day while cross-crossing the country via bus.
"Bruiser" Saitch recalled how the Rens sometimes "slept in jails because they wouldn't put us up in hotels... We sometimes had over a thousand damn dollars in our pockets and we couldn't get a good goddamn meal." (Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld)The Harlem Globetrotters, also a stellar all-black team, faced similar difficulties, but their brand of basketball combined entertaining showmanship that didn't upset the local white audiences as much as the Rens. Founded in the late 1920s by white businessman Abe Saperstein, the Trotters played tough basketball when the game was close, but their goofy antics entertained their mostly white audiences when the Trotters found themselves way ahead.
The Rens didn't like the white-owned Globetrotters for taking an approach to the game that played off white stereotypes of African Americans. To some, the Globetrotters' act was too reminiscent of the old minstrel shows that often portrayed black people as dim-witted buffoons. But beyond their approach to the game, another key difference between the two teams was the different level of support each team had for integrating the NBA.
After discovering the successful mix of skilled basketball players with a vaudevillian show, Saperstein realized that he was in control of a significant money-making enterprise. And once he realized that the Trotters' show could make his fortune, it was difficult to let it go.
The Globetrotters weren’t the first to marry comedy and sports, nor did they start off as a comedy act. Players today tell a handed-down story about a cold night in Iowa during the Depression, when one Globetrotter stood too close to a potbellied stove and his uniform caught fire. As he ran screaming around the court, the audience roared, and Saperstein saw the future. (Eskin)Saperstein's opposition to an integrated NBA essentially boiled down to money. By maintaining a near stranglehold on the best black talent in the country, he could help ensure that the Globetrotters would continue to be superior to white professional clubs, whose talent was spread across many teams. And in the earlier part of the 20th century, with racism and segregation still rampant and the economy dominated by white men, the unfairness of Saperstein's opposition to integration might not have seemed so apparent to him. After all, both the Globetrotters and Rens players were paid relatively well, even though Saperstein's opposition to integrating the big leagues limited the opportunities available to black players.
Although the point is debatable, the NBA officially traces its history to the beginning of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) in 1946. When the BAA began in America's big East coast cities, the Globetrotters were often featured in double-headers with BAA clubs like the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks. The Trotters were typically the opening act, but they were the team that the crowds came to see. By bringing in fans, the Globetrotters contributed to the ticket sales that helped keep the BAA teams afloat. While the college ranks were already integrated, teams in the BAA were afraid that Saperstein would try to sabotage the league if they diluted his talent pool by integrating. Regardless of whether the fears of the BAA owners were confirmed by outright threats from Saperstein, he did little to correct the record. Perception became reality, and the fear of retaliation from the Globetrotters was enough to keep the unstable BAA from integrating.
"They were afraid that Abe Saperstein, if they took one of his players, he would tell them to jump in the lake, which would cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars." - Carl Bennett, Ft. Wayne Pistons General Manager and member of the NBA Board of Governors (Thomas)Without an integrated top-tier professional league, the best black players only had two options for playing big-time professional basketball: The Rens and the Globetrotters. While the Rens actively campaigned to join the BAA, the Harlem Globetrotters was against integration and had the power to become a major roadblock if any team resisted their wishes.
Joe Lapchick in 1933
via Wikimedia Commons
via Wikimedia Commons
The creation of the New York Renaissance was inspired by the idea of establishing an all-black team that could compete with the New York Original Celtics, who were considered by most to be the best basketball team in the country during the 1920s. After Bob Douglas formed the Rens, they played many games against the Celtics all across the nation. Over time, the men on these teams developed a deep respect and affection for one another.
Before each game against the Celtics, popular Celtics center Joe Lapchick would hug Tarzan Cooper in front of the crowd, letting them know how the Celtics felt about the Rens and racism. Given the time, this demonstration of affection was more than a casual gesture, and it resulted in years of vitriolic epithets and death threats for Lapchick. Bob Douglas described his relationship with the Celtics as one of mutual respect.... "When we played against most white teams, we were colored. Against the Celtics, we were men." (Abdul-Jabbar and Obstfeld)In 1947, the Harlem Rens applied for membership in the BAA but were denied. Former Original Celtic Lapchick, at the time the head coach of the Knicks, supported the Rens and he threatened to resign when the Rens weren't allowed to join the league. But he was talked out of resigning by his old friend Bob Douglas, who told him that "someday you may get the chance to do something about this." Douglas was essentially asking Lapchick to work on changing the system from the inside, instead of resigning and losing whatever power he might have as the coach of the Knicks. While the BAA didn't invite the Rens to join in 1947, the league expanded the following year by raiding the National Basketball League (NBL) and adding the Minneapolis Lakers, Ft. Wayne Zollner Pistons, Indianapolis Kautskys, and Rochester Royals.
Arnie Johnson in 1948
The loss of two of its best teams, the Lakers and the Royals, weakened the NBL tremendously. It began the 1948-49 season in deep financial trouble, and its worst team, the Detroit Vagabond Kings, was unable to continue operating after beginning the season with only 2 wins and 17 losses. In an attempt to bolster the floundering league, the NBL moved the franchise to Dayton, invited the New York Renaissance to join the league, and rechristened the team as the Dayton Rens. While the NBL had a history of employing a limited number of black players, inviting an all-black team to join the league was unprecedented. The invitation was made to help bring attention to the league, but Dayton wasn't receptive to the Rens and the league still couldn't compete with the BAA. As a result, the NBL was forced to join the BAA, forming the NBA during the summer of 1949. The Dayton Rens did not survive the transition.
Later, in 1950, the NBA owners voted on whether to integrate the league. Perhaps encouraged by his head coach, Knicks owner Ned Irish made it clear to other NBA owners that he needed a center and he wanted the Harlem Globetrotters' Sweetwater Clifton. Clifton had played for a number of teams, including the Rens, before joining the Globetrotters. During Clifton's time with the Trotters, he realized how poorly the Trotters were treated in comparison to the College All-Stars, another team that traveled under Saperstein's umbrella. The All-Stars were paid more and given better accommodations while on the road, even though the Globetrotters were the main attraction. Because of this, Sweetwater wanted out. Irish wanted Clifton to join the Knicks, and he threatened to leave the NBA if the vote on integration failed. The Knicks were already a strong team, and Clifton might help them defeat George Mikan's powerhouse Lakers.
The proposal to integrate the league passed by one vote. Knicks owner Ned Irish was free to pursue Clifton, and the Knicks' coach Joe Lapchick would soon see his wish fulfilled.
Both black and white players were available to be drafted when the NBA draft began on April 25, 1950. The very top of the draft featured future stars Paul Arizin, Bob Cousy, Larry Foust, and George Yardley, but it wasn't long before the Boston Celtics took a chance by drafting Duquesne's Chuck Cooper twelfth overall. In addition to Cooper, the Washington Capitols chose another black man, Earl Lloyd, as the last pick in the draft. This did not make Abe Saperstein happy.
Two days after the draft, Saperstein reportedly threatened the NBA owners, saying that the Globetrotters would never play in Boston or Washington again. Celtic Owner Walter Brown, whose team was drowning in debt, nonetheless refused to back down. (Green)Oddly enough, Saperstein never followed through on his threat to boycott Boston and Washington. Perhaps because he could knew that times were finally changing, or maybe because he simply wanted to get rid of an unhappy player, shortly after the draft Saperstein became an active party in integrating the NBA when he sold Sweetwater Clifton's contract to the Knicks.
Led by Carl Braun, Harry Gallatin, and Connie Simmons, the Knicks had a strong team before the addition of Nat Clifton. But adding Sweetwater to their roster made them even better. With Clifton on board, the Knicks played in three consecutive NBA Finals from 1951-53, losing twice to George Mikan's Minneapolis Lakers and once to the Rochester Royals. While qualifying for three straight NBA finals is certainly an impressive achievement, some have argued that the Knicks could have used Clifton more effectively, which might have helped them win at least one of these three lost NBA Championships.
"... all the time I played [in New York] they never did get another good black ballplayer to play with me, somebody who knew what I was doing, you understand. And that kinda held me back, 'cause you can't do something with the other guys because they played the straight way." - Nat Clifton (Salzberg)Even with the slow trickle of integration that began in 1950, it took many years for the first black star to appear. Bill Russell, who joined the Celtics in 1956 and won 11 NBA championships, wasn't a star in the same mold of today's Kobe Bryant or LeBron James. Russell was a low-key superstar who shared the stage with his white teammates, helping them become better players behind the scenes and doing the dirty work needed to help them succeed. Bill Simmons, who ranks Russell as the number two player of all-time, said this about him:
Code words like "sacrifice" and "teammate" and "unselfish" pop up every time he's remembered. He's the only player who realized every component of basketball as a team game--not just playing, but coming together as a group, respecting one another, and embracing common goals--from the first game of his career through the last.By being a beloved guy who did the dirty work, Russell helped ease the path for white fans to cheer for black players, which opened the door for even more black stars to shine.
The game also opened up considerably as the more wide-open style of play perfected by the Rens and the Globetrotters was integrated into the slower and more plodding approach of the BAA and NBL. Changes that would come soon after integration, such as expanding the lane and adding a 24 second shot clock also contributed to the demise of the older-school style of basketball. What emerged from this mix was an exciting fast-paced game that fans loved to watch.
In Cages to Jump Shots, Carl Bennett recalls being told by another member of the NBA board of governors after the 1949 vote to integrate the league: "In five years, we'll be 75 percent black -- if we survive. We won't draw any people, and we've just ruined the game of basketball." In 2011, 78 percent of NBA players were African American. But in contrast to the prediction made over sixty years ago, the game and league are thriving.
The Commissioner was right: America is awesome.
-Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld's On the Shoulders of Giants:My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance. 2007.
-Bennett, Carl. Cages to Jump Shots. 2002.
-Green, Ben. Spinning the Globe: The Rise, Fall, and Return to Greatness of the Harlem Globetrotters. 2006.
-Salzberg, Charles. From Set Shot to Slam Dunk: The Glory Days of Basketball in the Words of Those Who Played It. 1998.
-Thomas, Ron. They Cleared the Lanes: The NBA's Black Pioneers. 2004.
-Eskin, Blake. Harlem Renaissance (via the Washington Post). Last Accessed 11/17/12
-Slam Magazine. Study: 2011 NBA Racial and Gender Report Card. Last Accessed 11/17/12