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Goodbye To The ‘Boy Wonder’
NEW YORK — John Isaacs, a legendary basketball star for the New York Rens and Washington Bears from the 1930, died early Monday morning at the age of 93.
Known as “Boy Wonder”, Isaacs had suffered a major stroke last week, from which he never arose. The New York native passed away at the Albert Einstein Hospital in the Bronx.
A fiery, powerfully built 6-foot-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.
“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.”
No less than sevenof Isaacs’ 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.
In addition to the Rens and Bears, 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.
Isaacs was also a technical advisor for Black Fives, Inc. and co-hosted 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 appeared frequently at basketball camps, amateur league games, fundraising events, and panel discussions.