The New York Renaissance Five, better known as the "Rens,"
they were the first all-black professional basketball team. They existed
before the Harlem Globetrotters and were a much different kind of team.
The Globies clowned around; the Rens played to win and did they win! For
their time there was no better basketball team in the world.
Put together in 1922 by Bob Douglas, the owner of the Renaissance
Casino Ballroom in Harlem, the Rens won 473 games and lost just 49 times
from 1932 to 1936. In 1933-34, they posted a record of 88 straight wins
and completed the year with a 127-7 record.
Their home games were played on the dance floor of the Renaissance
Casino Ballroom in Harlem. And when the games ended - some of the Rens
would stay around and dance with the ladies and enjoy the atmosphere.
But most of their "away" games were one-night stands that
they traveled to in their own custom-made, specially equipped $10,000
bus." On courts they were unfamiliar with, in all kinds of strange
places, the Rens played great team basketball. That technique held the
opposition scoring down and it also saved them steps and energy.
There were times that they played two or three games in a single day as
they barnstormed across the country. They had to set up command posts in
places like Chicago and Indianapolis and return from as far away as 200
miles after games because racial bigotry denied them hotel rooms. Their
post-game meals were often cold cuts that they carried on the bus because
so many places refused to feed or lodge them.
Their "road secretary" Eric Illidge carried a tabulator to
personally count the number of fans at games because the Rens were
generally paid a percentage of the gate. He also carried a pistol and told
the guys "Never come out on the court unless I have the money."
It was the only way the Rens could survive.
Some of the famous players on the Rens included: Clarence
"Fats" Jenkins, Wee Willie Smith, Bill Yancey, James
"Pappy" Ricks, John "Casey" Holt, Eyre
"Bruiser" Saitch and "Tarzan" Cooper. Both Yancey and
Jenkins were also great stars in Negro League baseball.
The Rens disbanded in 1948, and in 1963 the entire teams was elected to
membership in the National Basketball Hall of Fame. The story of the New
York Renaissance Five is a story of great success achieved in the face of
bigotry, great odds, tremendous sacrifice.
Illidge, the man with the pistol, explained it all: "We would not
let anyone deny us our right to make a living."