[Happy Black History Month. Here in the DMV, February has always been a month of reflection and celebration of courage, ingenuity, grace, and dozens of other adjectives to describe high character and achievement. But Black History Month can also turn into an annual reflection of the same characters and stories, and there’s no reason for that. Black history is incredibly rich, and that includes for pro basketball.
Here is the story of the famous New York Rens knocking off the white-champion Original Celtics for the first time in December 1925. Of course, pro basketball titles were then, like now, decided in multi-game series, not individual, winner-take-all showdowns. But this victory mattered. Unlike pro baseball, in which the moguls rigidly segregated the diamond into the 1940s, pro basketball was a lower profile, working-class game that allowed the races, at least in the North, to compete more freely. By proving that a Black team could take the Original Celtics, it provided a euphoric confidence boost that the race could be the purveyors of some of the best basketball in the world. The rest is, well, Black history on the basketball court.
This excerpt is drawn from my book Hot Potato: How Washington and New York Gave Birth to Black Basketball and Changed America’s Game Forever. (The publisher wrote the long subhead, and it’s such a drag to type.) If you don’t have the book, consider giving it a look. Published in 2004, Hot Potato offers the first in-depth look at the origins of Black basketball in the U.S. Enough about the book, and on to the Rens and their seminal victory now 97 years ago!]
For Romeo Dougherty, the dapper young dean of the nation’s Black sportswriters, the Renaissance Big Five transcended mere set shots. The Rens were Harlem’s team, the good guys with the Gothic “R” stitched across their chests, the guys who in just two seasons had upstaged [Pittsburgh’s] Cum Posey and returned the Black “Championship of the World” to Harlem.
Though the Rens and Posey’s Loendi had never met due to scheduling difficulties, Doherty wrote in his newspaper columns that only a fool would dispute the Rens’ claim to the Black championship. They boasted three of the premier offensive weapons in the Black game in Jenkins, Fiall, and Ricks, and Dougherty crowed that manager Bob Douglas’ Rens team had toppled more white teams than any other Black quintet in history. And the latter point mattered. After a dozen years of watching the latest Black court sensations fall like gnats against the bigger, taller, slower white teams, Dougherty finally could point to a Harlem outfit with the speed and skill to defeat the best white teams.
For Doherty, simply competing wasn’t enough. As a Black man and a West Indian immigrant who had spent too many years wrestling with race, Doherty wanted it all. He wanted the Black champions to beat the white-champion Original Celtics and prove that given an equal opportunity, Black athletes could defeat the best in the white world. Jack Johnson had proven it with his fists. DeHart Hubbard had proven it recently in the long-jump pit. And, God willing, the Renaissance Big Five would soon prove it on the basketball court.
That’s why Romeo Dougherty fixated on his beloved Renaissance Big Five. It also was why Dougherty couldn’t wait for his favorite team’s scheduled rematch with the Original Celtics during the Christmas holidays. As Doherty believed, the Rens were overdue.
The contest was played on December 20, 1925. Flip through just about any history of basketball, and there will be no mention of the game. No grainy photographs, no historic box score, no postgame reflections of the combatants. This treasure of basketball history has been buried for nearly 100 years, overlooked and forgotten.
Yet enough of a record remains in surviving newspapers of the era to revisit that rainy Sunday night. Temperatures were hovering in the low 40s. Along Lenox Avenue, the brownstones were trimmed in the reds and greens of the Christmas season. A hard turn onto W 137th Street, then a block further up, and there in lights pulsed the words Renaissance Casino. On the sidewalk, more people were moshed together than the eye could see.
“A milling throng of almost 4,000 fans tried to jam their way into the casino,” wrote Dougherty. “[A]fter about 3,000 had been admitted, the doors were barred and the unlucky ones forced to wait outside to get the news of one of the most historic battles in basketball ever.”
Inside the casino, the Harlem faithful rah, rah, rahed through the pregame cheers while the cynics—and there were many in attendance—must have had a good chuckle at the ambitious Bob Douglas. Here he was venturing outside his league yet again.
The Celtics barely had worked up a sweat in sweeping their six prior engagements in Harlem, including two ho-hum victories over the Rens. Did Douglas really think his team could beat the white champions of the world? If Celtic owner Jim Furey had passed out calling cards before the game, they might have read: “Original Celtics. Highest paid basketball team in America. Defending champions of the world. Claimants of a 20-1 season record. Holders of a 15-game win streak.”
Bob Douglas had faith in his team. His Rens had nearly snapped the Celtics’ win streak three weeks earlier in New Jersey, and since then, his players had practiced harder than ever in hopes of finally turning the tables on the Celtics. It was the kind of after-hours commitment that Douglas and Dougherty had been hoping for from day one and the kind of attention to detail that they seemed to believe would make the team unbeatable.
Like most coaches before a big game, Douglas agonized over the unknown. He hoped, of course, that his players would make him proud, but there were too many what-ifs. What if the Original Celtics were on top of their game? What if the Rens, despite the extra practice, caved in to the pressure of defeating the white champions?
That would mark three straight blowouts at home against the Celtics. His fans were growing more impatient with every season, and Douglas had to know that the boobirds would be out in force, delivering their told-you-so tales about the rise and fall of the “invincible,” “world-class” basketball team from Harlem that never was. These thumbs-down opinions would hurt attendance at the Renaissance Casino, erode his already thin bottom line, and imperil the future of the team.
Given the gravity of the moment, the usually calm and cagey Douglas couldn’t stop fidgeting as he awaited the entrance of his players.
“With Manager ‘Bob’ Douglas sitting on the sidelines biting an unlit cigar to pieces, the colored players took the court . . . confident of victory and proving that their strict attention to the demands of the game during the past few weeks had left them resolved to put forth the greatest effort of their career and bring victory, thereby staving off the censure, which was slowly but surely cropping up among those who have faithfully supported the team,” wrote Dougherty.
Douglas and the Ren faithful must have groaned in unison when the Celtics grabbed the opening tap, raced downcourt, and dropped home the game’s first two points. A 2-0 deficit surely hadn’t been in the gameplan; but before Douglas could mangle another Havana to protest his team’s sloppy defense, the Rens answered with a score of their own. Then came a second and a third ringer from the Rens, and just like that, a battle was on.
As the two teams grappled on the tiny wooden floor, the game might have seemed like a replay of their last clash in Harlem nine months earlier, when, according to one scribe, the Celtics feigned a tough-fought first half to keep the crowd happy. Yet on this evening, the Celtic players seemed sluggish. They kept slipping on the freshly waxed floor, or so they claimed, while the more sure-footed Rens wheeled and dealed on offense. Cutters broke free, passes arrived on time, shots rattled through the hoop. Never had the Rens’ passing game looked sharper against such top-flight competition, and the finest white basketball players in the world had to resort to grabbing jerseys and other means of foul play just to keep pace.
At halftime, the Rens had razzle-dazzled their way to a 20-15 lead. The Celtics could close a five-point deficit in a heartbeat, and as both teams arrived at center court to shake hands and tip off the second stanza, many in the crowd had to wonder whether the white champions, per usual, would turn it on and taste victory in the second half.
But all the Celtics would taste in the second half was their own tough luck. With their tall center Joe Lapchick out of the lineup for the evening with a bum knee, the Celtics failed to win the after-basket jump balls, meaning the champs also failed to control the basketball and dictate the tempo of the game. Instead, the ball belonged to the smaller, zippier Rens, and more often than not, it landed in the hands of the zippiest Ren of them all, Fat Jenkins.
“Jenkins gets away from a standing start at full speed,” marveled the white New York Daily Mirror newspaper. “Once underway, he leaves a trail of scorched boards behind him.” The reporter noted: “Harlem folk have a saying, ‘Any time you want to find the ball, find Fat Jenkins.’ The Celtics could do nothing with this great little star of roly-poly build.”
As the final seconds ticked down on the game, Harlem rose as one—young and old, native and foreign born. Their Rens were about to defeat the greatest legends of the white game 37-30, and how sweet it was. How sweet that the Ren players, through growl and grit, had willed themselves into one of the finest teams going in professional basketball.
Wrote Dougherty : “At last! After more than five years of trying, the colored people of America are today rejoicing in another championship.”