The Dayton Rens:
The Jackie Robinson's of Professional Basketball

By Craig This

 

When the Dayton Rens joined the National Basketball League (NBL) for the 1948-49 season, they become the first and only all-black team to play in a white league. This milestone came just one year after Jackie Robinson, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers, broke the color barrier in major league baseball.

For the Rens, however, this milestone would be the only highlight of a season, in which they finished in last place with a record of 16-43. Sadly, the team and the NBL would no longer exist at the end of the season and thus came to an end one of the most successful basketball teams in the history of the sport.

The Dayton Rens, formerly the New York Renaissance, or Rens, moved to Dayton in the middle of the NBL season to replace the Detroit Vagabond Kings, who went out of existence on December 17, 1948. The Rens inherited the Kings' 2-17 record. The Dayton Rens compiled a 14-26 record, ending the season with an overall record of 16-43.

While not all that successful in their one year in the NBL, the Rens had been a widely successful and popular barnstorming team during the 1920's and 1930's. The Rens had traveled across the Northeast and Midwest of the United States, attracting crowds as large as 15,000 to watch their games. As such, the NBL invited the Rens in hopes of bolstering a league that was slowly fading away faced with direct competition from the newly formed National Basketball Association (NBA). Four of the more popular NBL teams--the Minneapolis Lakers, the Fort Wayne Pistons, the Rochester Royals, and the Indianapolis Kautskys -had moved to the NBA prior to the start of the 1948-49 season. The NBL needed a popular team and so chose the New York Rens.

The choice to invite an all-black team was not all that difficult given that the NBL had been integrated almost from its inception. The NBL had come into existence on the eve of World War II. With the entry of the United States into World War II and the drafting of many of its white players into the armed forces, the NBL sought out African Americans to fill the vacancies on its teams. For the 1942-43 season, the NBL integrated when 10 black players joined two of its teams, the Toledo Jim White Chevrolets and the Chicago Studebakers. Like the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League (1943-1954), the integration of the African-American into the sport of professional basketball was conducted to shore up existing teams and franchises.

Thus, a history and tradition of African Americans playing in the NBL existed when the New York Rens were invited into the league. However, by the time the Rens moved to Dayton in 1948, they were no longer same dominant team that had existed in the 1920's and 1930's. While William "Pop" Gates, the Rens' player/coach, remained with the team, many of its better players had either retired or signed with other teams.

Gone were "Wee" Willie Smith, Clarence "Fat" Jenkins, and Charles "Tarzan" Cooper-players whose style of play, based on speed, short crisp passes, and relentless defense, had made the New York Rens into a dominant basketball team of the 1920's and 1930's. During the 1932-33 regular season, the New York Rens compiled a record of 112-8. During that season, the Rens won 88 consecutive games, a mark that has never been matched by a professional basketball team. In 1939, the Rens became the first all-black team to win a championship game when they beat the Oshkosh All-Stars, 34-25, in the World Basketball Tournament in Chicago.

The move to Dayton to become the first all-black team in a white league was just another groundbreaking achievement by this team. The New York/Dayton Rens were pioneers that set the stage for the integration of the NBA in the 1950's, which occurred on October 31, 1950, when Earl Lloyd joined the Washington Capitols. The National Basketball Association did not forget the New York/Dayton Rens'. In 1963, the New York/Dayton Rens were inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame ( http://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/tag/new-york-renaissance ) and, in 1977, Charles "Tarzan" Cooper was inducted
( http://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/tag/charles-t-cooper ) followed by William "Pop" Gates in 1989
( http://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/tag/william-p-gates ).

 

 

Submitted by: Craig This 

 

Sources:
"Freedom to Play: The Life and Times of Basketball's African American Pioneers." An online exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame
( http://www.hoophall.com/ )
Hareas, John. "Remembering the Rens." Online article at NBA.com
( http://www.nba.com/history/encyclopedia_rens_001214.html )
"New York Rens." Basketball Hall of Fame. ( http://www.hoophall.com/ )
Stark, Douglas. "Paving the Way-history of integration of African Americans into professional basketball." Basketball Digest (February 2001).

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