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The ‘Father of Black Professional Basketball’

DALLAS WEEKLY NEWS — Robert ‘Bob’ Douglas was born in the British West Indies on Nov. 4, 1882. According to Naismith Hall of Famer John Isaacs, Douglas’ first sport was soccer and after playing soccer one day, he was invited to watch a basketball game. That day would not only change Bob’s life, but the game of basketball overall.

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Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

By Rashad Miller | Dallas Weekly Magazine

BET co-founder Robert L. Johnson is often recognized as the first Black majority club owner of a major sports league team when he purchased the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats (now the Charlotte Hornets) in 2002, but the first Black-owned professional team was actually formed almost 80 years prior.

Robert ‘Bob’ Douglas was born in the British West Indies on Nov. 4, 1882. According to Naismith Hall of Famer John Isaacs, Douglas’ first sport was soccer and after playing soccer one day, he was invited to watch a basketball game. That day would not only change Bob’s life, but the game of basketball overall.

Douglas’ passion for basketball manifested itself into him wanting to be involved with the sport in any way possible. He eventually found and managed a team named the Spartan Braves, named after the Spartan Field Club. Bob knew his team would need a venue to play in and that’s when he’d meet with William Roach.

William ‘Willie’ Roach was one of the owners and operators of the Renaissance Ballroom and Casino. The venue was fully owned and operated by the Sarco Realty and Holdings Company, Inc., an all African American company. The ‘Renny’ as it was nicknamed, would open its doors in 1921 at the corner of 138th Street and 7th Avenue in Harlem. The ballroom was the only club open to African Americans, even the famous Cotton Club didn’t hold that distinction due to the Jim Crow laws of the time.

“Black Mecca” would host jazz legends like Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. It would even host plays, dances, prize fights, film screenings, and organization rallies. The Renaissance Ballroom was the epicenter of the Harlem Renaissance (known then as the New Negro Movement) of the 1920s and 30s.

In October of 1923, the Spartan Braves would become the Renaissance Big R Five or “Rens” for short, after an agreement between Roach and Douglas to use the venue as their home court. That agreement would eventually be the blueprint for the licensing you see in modern professional sports today. They played (and won) their first game on Nov. 3, 1923 against the Collegiate Five, an all-white team.

The Rens’ first rivals were the Original Celtics, not to be confused with the NBA’s Boston Celtics, out of West New York. They would defeat the Original Celtics on Dec. 20,1925, their first win in five meets. Bob Douglas would eventually start taking the Rens barnstorming, or traveling with the team across the country, for a chance to make more money.

The team traveled sometimes 200 miles to face opponents, Black or white, while sleeping on the bus and eating cold meals due to the lack of facilities that barred them from being occupants due to the discriminatory laws that were in place at the time. These obstacles didn’t stop them from being dominant and in their 1932-33 season, they would have a regular season record of 120-8. They also won 88 consecutive games that season, a feat that hasn’t been matched by any professional sports team.

In 1939, the Rens would win their first (and only) professional championship against the all-white Oshkosh All-Star 34-25 in the World Professional Basketball Tournament. The team compiled a record of 2588-529 from their inaugural season in 1923 until their move to Dayton, Ohio in 1948.

The Dayton Rens would be short-lived as they disbanded in 1949 when the National Basketball League merged with the all-white Basketball Association of America to become the then-segregated National Basketball Association. Many former Renaissance players went to be enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, including Pop Gates, who with William ‘Dolly’ King helped integrate the NBL, the predecessor to the NBA.

The 1932-33 New York Renaissance were collectively inducted to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963 in recognition of their historic 88 game win streak. Robert Douglas was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor to the game of basketball on Feb. 5, 1972, the first African American ever to be individually enshrined.

In the 21st century, the team’s history was the subject of the 2011 documentary, On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Team You Never Heard Of, a film written and produced by six-time NBA champion and legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. The Rens are also the inspiration behind the EYBL team of the same name, ensuring that the legacy of what Bob Douglas started 101 years ago inspires generations to come.

Follow Rashad Miller on all social media @theuncoolurban for more sports content as well as his Youtube channel under the same name.

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