“On the Shoulders of Giants”

By Troy Sparks
Updated: May 15, 2011

Kareem and Samuel L. Jackson

Kareem and Samuel L. Jackson

MILWAUKEE, WI – Most of us think that black professional basketball players existed in the NBA. That’s not true. You have to go back further than that.

Research by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar became a reality in making a movie about the New York Renaissance, or the Rens for short. Abdul-Jabbar was in town for appearances and to show a private screening of his movie, “On the Shoulders of Giants” to Milwaukee Bucks season ticket holders and anyone who was associated with the team during the time Abdul-Jabbar played here.

Abdul-Jabbar listened to a debate by Bill Russell, Jerry West and Former Chicago Bulls general manager Jerry Reinsdorf on who was the best professional team of all time. Even though they were biased on NBA championship teams they were a part of, none of them could imagine playing against the Rens in the pre-shot clock and NBA era.

The movie production team tracked down some original film footage of the Rens. They found a Jewish rabbi in New York who had about 40 seconds of action. And in that footage, the Rens played faster than most NBA teams today.

Players like John Issacs, Tarzan Cooper, Puggy Bell, Wee Willie Smith, Fats Jenkins and Willie “Pop” Gates rarely lost to other black teams. The all-white professional teams didn’t want to play the Rens in their early years.

What was intersting about the movie was how that team in Harlem played their games in the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino which also held dances after the games.

The story of the greatest basketball team you never heard of began in 1923 and ended in 1948 when the NBA was establishing a league. For the Rens to prove that they were the best professional basketball team, they had to beat teams like the Original Celtics and the Harlem Globetrotters.

That opportunity to meet both teams came in in all-comers tournament in 1939 in Chicago. The Rens beat the Globetrotters and other white teams but got no love from the white press.

When the Rens went on barnstorming tours, they faced discrimination and threats by whites in the south. Some of them carried knives on them on the court for protection. All that on a travel budget of $37 a week.

Bob Douglas was the first black owner of a professional black team. Douglas was elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1972. He tried to get the Rens into the Hall of Fame as a team, but they weren’t accepted. Douglas died in 1979. The Rens had an overall record of 2,318-381.

In 1950, the NBA drafted Chuck Cooper, Sweetwater Clifton and Earl Lloyd as the first black players to play in the league. A majority of the players in the NBA today are black.

Most of the photos of the Rens’ early days came from Puggy Bell’s son, Richard. Artwork by Justin Bua and interviews by Carmelo Anthony, Grant Hill, James Worthy, Clyde Drexler gave the present and former players a great appreciation of the origin of black professional basketball.

Spike Lee, Rev. Al Sharpton, Samuel Jackson, Maya Angelou and Chuck D, to name a few, added the native New Yorker originality to the film in their commentaries. The narration by Jamie Foxx was on the money.

Dr. Cornell West and Abdul-Jabbar brought the connection between the past and present treatment of blacks in America to light in the film while walking on the streets of Harlem. At one time, Harlem was the east coast’s version of Las Vegas.

This 1 hour 15 minute film is worth watching. It’s based on the book by the same name by Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld. The book and movie concluded about four years of research and hard work.