In December 2009, when I interviewed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in Los Angeles, he and his producing partner, Deborah Morales, mentioned a documentary they were working on entitled On the Shoulders of Giants. In 2007, Kareem authored a book of the same title, which focused on the impact of the Harlem Renaissance. Branching from the book, the movie will spotlight the Harlem Rens (short for Renaissance), an all black men’s basketball team that was long on talent, but short on respect and notoriety.
Morales informed me that because I had agreed to do the interview with Kareem, she would allow Hoops Addict to run a banner for the movie and provide readers with an opportunity to ask Kareem questions. It did not take long for me to agree to the deal.
As it turned out, I got something even better than a banner: A trailer for the movie. I was going to do a brief write up for the movie and put the trailer on the Hoops Addict site, when Morales asked me to hold off a bit. There was a chapter from the book she wanted me to read. It detailed the events leading up to the time when the Harlem Rens played the Harlem Globetrotters for the first World Championship of professional basketball.
What I read blew me away.
On one side there was the Harlem Globetrotters. They were an all-black team owned by a white man named Abe Saperstein, who was frustrated by the lack of notoriety his team was getting. The Globetrotters played 160 games a year in countries like Mexico, France, and England wanting them to play as well. They were turning a profit despite the Great Depression, and they had the perfect mix of old and new players on their team.
Unfortunately there was a sizable thorn in their side that prevented them from being the Kings on the block—the Harlem Rens, and according to Coach John Wooden, “the greatest team he had ever seen play team basketball.”
Where the Globetrotters would overwhelm their opponents with dazzling play and slapstick antics, the all-black Rens team simply focused on hard-nosed play as their calling card. Their style was also much more appealing to the African-American community and press during the 1930’s, which further distanced them from the Globetrotters. They were owned by Bob Douglas, but his road manager, Eric Illidge, was equally vocal.
Saperstein finally got tired of feeling slighted by the Rens, and he challenged Douglas and Illidge to a winner-take-all game. He took out an ad in The Pittsburgh Courier—a pro-Rens paper with strong African-American support—so he was absolutely sure his challenge would be heard.
Illidge quickly responded to the Globetrotters’ challenge, and he called them “Court Clowns,” saying his team would be more than happy to play them. Furthermore, Illidge said that the Rens would play any time, any place – for no money just to prove a point. The gauntlet was thrown down, and after posturing on both sides the teams would finally meet for the first time in the upcoming World Professional Tournament to be held in Chicago, Illinois in March 1939.
The World Professional tournament featured twelve teams. Ten of them were white, and the Rens and the Globetrotters rounded out the field. The mainstream white media refused to even acknowledge the presence of the black teams in their coverage.
To make matters worse, the Rens and the Globetrotters were placed in the same bracket, so that they’d meet in the semifinals at best. This guaranteed the presence of at least one white team in the finals.
The games held true to form. The Rens and the Globetrotters met in the finals. I could tell you who won and what the score of the game was, but that wouldn’t be any fun, now would it?
During this black history month, take the time to pick up Kareem’s book On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey through the Harlem Renaissance and learn more about this game, the Rens and the effect the Harlem Renaissance had on Kareem.
For a sneak peek of the movie based on the book, slated to come out early next year, click here.
Also, if you have questions you’d like to ask Kareem about this story, this book, or the upcoming movie, please email me via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of Amy Stine Photography and Design.