Remembering: the New York Renaissance Five
With the NBA All Star Game almost upon us, with the
college hoops season heading towards “March Madness,” it is sometimes
satisfying to look back on the way of life that once existed in the
The New York Renaissance Five, better known as the "Rens,"
was 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
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
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."
# # #
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About the Author:
Harvey Frommer is in his 38th year of writing books.
A noted oral historian and sports journalist, the author of 42 sports
books including the classics: "New York City Baseball,1947-1957" and
"Shoeless Joe and Ragtime Baseball," his acclaimed REMEMBERING YANKEE
STADIUM was published in 2008 and his REMEMBERING FENWAY PARK: AN ORAL
AND NARRATIVE HISTORY OF THE HOME OF RED SOX NATION was published to
acclaim in 2011. The prolific Frommer is at work on When It Was
Just a Game, An Oral History on Super Bowel One.
His work has appeared in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times,
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Frommer along with his wife, Myrna Katz Frommer are the authors of
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