Why Isn’t John Isaacs In The Hall of Fame?

By Claude Johnson
Updated: September 30, 2008

NEW YORK — Earlier this week, basketball standout John Isaacs turned 94 years old. Isaacs, who jumped straight from high school into the pros, was a pioneering basketball star with the all-black New York Renaissance (aka Harlem Rens).

Among his many accomplishments, he helped lead the Rens to the first ever World Pro Basketball Tournament title in 1939. But the main question here is — why isn’t this pioneering player a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield?

A fiery, powerfully built 6-feet-1, 190-pound guard, Isaacs led his Textile High School (now Charles Evans Hughes H. S.) basketball team to the New York City High School Basketball championship title in 1935, receiving All-City honors in the process.

Fresh out of high school, Isaacs signed a professional basketball contract with the New York Renaissance (“Rens”) in 1936, earning the nickname “Boy Wonder.” Before signing with Rens team owner Robert “Bob” Douglas, Isaacs recalls that he first had to get his mother’s permission to sign.

“His playing ability and temperament fits him to become an important cog in the fast moving Rennie team,” predicted a local sportswriter.

Isaacs promptly led the Rens to season records of 122-19, 121-19, and 127-15, the latter culminating in the championship title of the first ever World’s Professional Basketball Tournament, held in 1939 in Chicago.

After winning the tournament, in a legendary statement that spoke louder than words, Isaacs took a razor blade and carefully cut the word “Colored” off of his championship jacket so that it read simply “World Champions.”

He won the title again in 1943 with the all-black Washington Bears.

On the court, Isaacs was a fierce competitor and floor leader, a crisp passer and playmaker, a hardnosed defender, and a tenacious rebounder. In addition to bringing a crushing brand of physical toughness, Isaacs also introduced the pick and roll to the Rens, a play he learned in high school.

At a time when statistics for assists, turnovers, steals, and rebounds were not tracked as they are today, a player was measured by team results and by the quality of his teammates.

In the case of the New York Rens, every player on the court was expected to do everything, so every player had to be up to the level of his teammates or he just wouldn’t play.

“To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball,” said legendary coach and Hall of Fame member John Wooden — who faced the barnstorming Rens often during the mid-1930s while a player with the Indianapolis Kautskys and other all-white pro basketball teams in Indiana — in a USA Today interview in 2000.

“They had great athletes, but they weren’t as impressive as their team play. The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then, and I believe it would be today.”

Isaacs recalls that Wooden could “flat out play.” Rather than “flash and dash,” says Isaacs, Wooden preferred to “take it to the rack.”

So, while there are few living players and hard stats from the Black Fives Era that can testify directly regarding Isaacs’ performance (Isaacs himself is the only surviving member of the ground-breaking 1938-1939 World’s Champion Rens team), the results speak for themselves.

No less than seven of his Rens and Bears teammates are already enshrined in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame: Gates (1989) and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper (1977) individually, and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Johnny Holt, Eyre Saitch, Willie Smith, and Bill Yancey as members of the 1932-1933 Rens team that was enshrined as a unit (1963).

Two others are enshrined in the New York City and Philadelphia Basketball Halls of Fame, respectively: Clarence “Puggy” Bell and Zachariah “Zack” Clayton. William “Dolly” King, a teammate on the Bears, is enshrined in the Long Island University Sports Hall of Fame.

As testimony enough, Isaacs was a starter on the teams that featured these remarkable players.

In addition to the Rens and Bears, John Isaacs played pro basketball with numerous teams including the Hazleton Mountaineers (Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League) and the Utica Olympics (New York State Professional League) as well as with Brooklyn and Saratoga (American Basketball League) into the early 1950s.

After retiring, he coached basketball and later became a youth mentor and recreation counselor at the Madison Square Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx, a job he has held for over 40 years and still goes to every day.

Isaacs is a technical advisor for Black Fives, Inc. and co-hosts a weekly sports talk show, “What’s Going On,” that airs on WHCR-FM 90.3, the City College of New York community radio station otherwise known as “The Voice of Harlem.” He also appears frequently at basketball camps, amateur league games, fundraising events, and panel discussions.

Isaacs was a finalist for induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2005 and 2006 but did not get enough votes either time. Through ever increasing exposure, advocacy, and activism on the part of journalists, historians, authors, family members, licensees, retailers, current and former athletes, entertainers, and others, the voting members of the Hall of Fame enshrinement committees will eventually become conscious enough to properly embrace this history.

Think of this as a petition — if we get enough people to join, it’ll show the Basketball Hall of Fame how important it is to recognize John Isaacs as well as others who paved the way for today’s game.