FORD FREEDOM AWARD HONOREE
The New York Renaissance:
If ever a team demonstrated the value of Talent, Tenacity and Teamwork, it was this year’s Ford Freedom Award honoree, the New York Renaissance.
The Rens, as they were called, hold a special place in sports history as the nation’s first all-black, professional basketball team owned by African Americans. They were so talented they were the most dominant professional basketball team in the 1920s and 1930s, winners of 88 straight games in the 1932-1933 season and a world champion in 1939 after beating teams of all races in the World Professional Basketball Tournament.
They demonstrated tenacity year after year in the face of discrimination from leagues that would not let them play and fans who were abusive and prejudiced against African-American players. And they were one of the greatest early examples of how teamwork leads to basketball success, prompting Hall of Fame player and coach John Wooden to later declare that in all his years of coaching “I have never seen a team play better team basketball.”
The Rens were founded in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s, a time of great cultural achievement by African Americans in art, music, writing, theater, poetry and other creative fields. The Rens were as creative in basketball as other African Americans were in the arts.
They were founded by a man named Bob Douglas, later called the “Father of Black Basketball,” and named after the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in the Harlem neighborhood in New York City, where people went to hear music and dance. Douglas agreed to help advertise the casino by naming his team the Renaissance, and in exchange the casino agreed to let the team practice and play home games in the ballroom. People would come to watch the games, and afterwards would stick around for dancing.
In the early years, the team was made up of Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, Bill Yancey, John “Casey” Holt, James “Pappy” Ricks, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, and William “Wee Willie” Smith, and everyone agreed they were some of the best players anyone had ever seen. It was no surprise that the players were inducted as a team into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963.
“The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing,” said Wooden, who once played against the Rens before winning 10 college basketball championships as a coach with UCLA.
But even though people loved to come watch the Rens play, that didn’t mean they ever forgot the players were African American. It was a time when racial prejudice and segregation were widespread, and racial insults were common at games. Some Rens victories ended in fights, with white players and fans fighting the African American team that had beaten them. After games, the Rens often had to eat in their bus because restaurants wouldn’t serve them. And while they traveled from city to city to play, many hotels wouldn’t let them stay.
The National Basketball Association, the NBA, didn’t exist yet. Professional teams were part of the American Basketball League instead. In 1925, Douglas, the team owner, asked the all-white league if the Rens could join and become an official league basketball team. The league said no.
Still, the Rens kept on playing. They kept winning and crowds kept coming to watch them.
In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson became the first black baseball player in the modern Major Leagues, Douglas again asked the basketball league if the Rens could join. The owners voted, and said no.
Not long after that The Rens disbanded, finishing with a 2,588-529 record. The players went on to other jobs, and people forgot about the team. That’s why just last year, another basketball legend, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who grew up in Harlem, created a documentary film about the Rens.
He called them the "greatest basketball team you never heard of."
FORD FREEDOM AWARD SCHOLAR
Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 65, is the NBA's All-Time Leading Scorer, having amassed 38,387 points over a 20-year career with the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers. He won six NBA championships and was league MVP a record six times, while also being selected to a record setting 19 NBA All-Star teams as well as to the NBA's 50th Anniversary All-Time Team. He has been named one of the 50 greatest players in the NBA. In college Abdul-Jabbar won three straight national championships at UCLA and is the only scholar/athlete in history to be voted the Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament three times. He received the very first Naismith College Player of the Year Award in 1969 and has been dubbed by ESPN as "The Best Collegiate Player of the 20th Century" and "History's Greatest Player" by Time Magazine.
Since retiring from the game, the man who perfected the "skyhook" has become a speaker, author, filmmaker, and educator, and on January 18th, 2012 U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton appointed Abdul-Jabbar as a Global Cultural Ambassador.
As a U.S. Global Cultural Ambassador Abdul-Jabbar's mission is to travel the world and engage underserved youth through special programs and open a dialogue which promotes American history and culture. Through his work with the Skyhook Foundation he engages filmmakers, writers and athletes to develop books and films that teach children about important figures in U.S. history.
Abdul-Jabbar is a 7-time New York Times best-selling author with books such as Giant Steps, published in 1983 and followed by Kareem, Black Profiles in Courage, A Season on the Reservation, Brothers in Arms: the epic story of the 761st all black tank battalion, and On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance. His latest book, What Color is My World-The Lost History of African American Inventors is being used to teach children about STEM education (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) in elementary schools all over the United States.
"If America is to maintain our high standard of living, we must continue to innovate," said Abdul-Jabbar. "We are competing with nations many times our size and STEM learning represents the engines of innovation. With these engines we can lead the world, because knowledge is real power."
Abdul-Jabbar recently adapted his 2007 book, On the Shoulders of Giants, producing a critically acclaimed documentary of the same name that aired on Showtime, Time Warner and Netflix in 2012.
In 2011, President Obama honored Abdul-Jabbar at a White House reception followed by a presentation by Attorney General Eric Holder who awarded Kareem the prestigious Abraham Lincoln Medal in a special ceremony held at Ford's Theater. The medal honors those who exemplify the character and lasting legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. Abdul-Jabbar continues his commitment to education through his Skyhook Foundation, which is committed to developing & sharing teaching programs that bridge sports and education together. Today, as he travels the world, he is an ESPN.com columnist and writes for numerous other magazines and websites.