After immigrating to the United States from the West Indies in 1901, 19-year-old Bob Douglas found a job as a doorman in New York City. A few years later, a co-worker took him to visit an upstairs basketball court in midtown Manhattan, and he was stunned by the athletic prowess on display.
Inspired by that moment, Douglas went on to create and coach the New York Renaissance, which was founded exactly 100 years ago this month. More commonly known as the Rens, they were the first Black-owned, all-Black professional basketball team in history.
But there was a problem: Black athletes were still barred from competing in professional basketball as of 1923 and were not allowed to compete for national basketball titles.
“I find it really hard to believe that NBA players are not aware of the fact that the NBA, when it started, was segregated,” basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, said in On the Shoulders of Giants (2011), a documentary he produced to raise awareness of what he called “the best team you’ve never heard of.”
The NBA was formed in 1946 and was segregated until 1950. Decades before that, the New York Renaissance played—and usually won—whatever exhibition game it could find. From 1923 to 1949, the team amassed an incredible record of 2,318 wins and only 381 losses.
Starting the New York Rens
In 1923, Douglas, who had enjoyed playing sports as a child, was determined to create a basketball team and provide greater opportunities for New York City’s Black athletes. First, he needed to find a place for his team to play, and he found it in the Renaissance Ballroom & Casino at 7th Avenue and 138th Street in Harlem.
Douglas asked casino owner William Roach for permission to erect two basketball nets on the one of the dance floors, where his team could play a few games and then clear the court before late-night dancing began, according to Bob Kuska’s book Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever.
“I asked [Roach] about having a team there, and he said ‘Definitely not. You guys will play rough basketball, and those rough crowds will break up my place,’” Douglas said, according to the book. He persuaded Roach to change his mind after Douglas agreed to arrange the games and pay the teams himself, taking on all the financial risk.
There was one other catch: Douglas had to name the team after the casino. The New York Renaissance, also sometimes called the Harlem Renaissance Big Five, marked the “first naming rights deal” in basketball history, future NBA Commissioner David Stern said in On the Shoulders of Giants.
“What made the Rens so incredible was those players came from the heart of African American culture,” Harlem Globetrotters CEO Mannie Jackson said in On the Shoulders of Giants. “As an African American, you hadn’t lived until you’d experienced African American culture in New York, and the Rens kind of embodied that excellence.”
But the Renaissance Casino had fewer seats and attracted fewer people than other New York City casinos, so Douglas had to pack the house to generate profits and keep his team alive. Romero Dougherty, a prominent New York sports editor at the time, predicted: “Two [financial] failures at the Renaissance and the team will go to pieces,” according to Kuska’s book.
So the team also traveled the country playing any opponent that would agree to schedule them. They repeatedly faced discrimination and racist violence, which included fistfights with white players and fans after the Rens beat their team. The players were often banned from hotels and restaurants while on the road due to Jim Crow laws and segregation practices.
“We would walk into a white-owned restaurant, and the best they could ever do for us was let us eat, standing, in the kitchen, where no one else could see us,” Renaissance player John Isaacs once told The New York Times.
“Many times they wouldn’t be able to get into hotels,” basketball historian Dick Engleberg said in On the Shoulders of Giants. “A lot of times they stayed in jails because that was the safest place they could stay.”
Scoring Their Way to Unprecedented Success
No matter the obstacle, the Rens just kept winning. The team’s rosters featured incredible talents, some of whom couldn’t play anywhere else. Seven players would later be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: Isaacs, Sonny Boswell, Zack Clayton, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, Charles Cooper, Pop Gates, and Clarence Jenkins.
In 1925, the Rens shocked the world by defeating the Original Celtics, the most dominant all-white team of their day. During the 1932–33 season, the Renaissance won 88 straight games, a professional basketball record that remains unbroken. In 1939, they defeated the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars to win the first world professional basketball tournament in Chicago, according to Kuska’s book.
The Globetrotters’ Jackson said the Renaissance helped change the game of basketball by focusing on quick passing, which let the players move faster and play a more fluid game. “The rules were adopted to a game played much slower and much more methodical,” he said in On the Shoulders of Giants.
The Rens began to decline as its players got older and the tens of thousands of miles of traveling took its toll, Kuska wrote. The team disbanded in 1949, but in time, they were recognized for the important role they played in advancing Black athletes in basketball.
Douglas, who had owned and coached the Rens for their entire 25-year run, is today known as the “Father of Black Professional Basketball.” The New York Renaissance was enshrined in the Hall of Fame as a team in 1963, and Douglas became the first Black person to be inducted as an individual in 1972, ensuring that although the Rens aren’t a household name, their legacy will never be forgotten.
Colin McEvoy joined the Biography.com staff in 2023, and before that had spent 16 years as a journalist, writer, and communications professional. He is the author of two true crime books: Love Me or Else and Fatal Jealousy. He is also an avid film buff, reader, and lover of great stories.