Today we are taking you to the barnstorming days of early basketball. Our subject is a team called the New York Rens, short for the New York Renaissance. Sometimes they were called the Renaissance Big Five, or the Douglas Rens after their owner Bob Douglas. Their hay day was all the way back to the 1920s, 30s, and 40s.
Please note – you can listen to this entire article in a podcast form via the player below, or you can continue to read the post (or both).
Barnstorming Days of Basketball
The name barnstorming comes from the idea of going from barn to barn to play games in rural and semi-rural areas. Rarely was a professional basketball game actually played in a barn, but that’s where the name comes from.
The NBA did not come into existence until 1946. So, prior to that, if you were a good player, the big money was in barnstorming. Professional leagues did exist in the Northeast and Midwest, but they were usually not well organized and the money was not that great. Leagues would only last a few years and fold, then new leagues would pop up and also fold. Players would jump from league to league. It was just basically a big mess. Therefore, the barnstorming tour existed.
The way it worked was like this: There is a guy, usually a local businessman with a little bit of money. The guy would form a team of 6 to 8 players. That guy would usually become the manager, coach, and traveling secretary for the team. Then you would go from town to town challenging the locals to a game. Usually, these games were scheduled ahead of time. Sometimes the team would literally drive into a town and say something like, “Hey, put your best team together, and let’s play.” The locals were usually agreeable.
They would usually use the high school gym or maybe an armory or a local theatre. They would charge admission and split the profits with the home team. A lot of times they agreed that the winners would get 60% and the losers would get 40%. That was enough that it usually ensured a good, hard-fought game because the winners got a little bit extra money.
Then they would do it again in the next town. Most of these teams would schedule anywhere from 100 to 130 games per year. That would put a lot of wear and tear on their bodies. It was not like they traveled with a trainer. They had to tape themselves if there was even tape available. If they had gauze or a bandage they would just tightly wrap up whatever part of their body that was hurt and then go play. These were often shoestring operations.
It was not like the NBA today where teams travel by chartered plane, with food prepared by chefs, with 6 assistant coaches, two trainers, a strength coach, an equipment manager, a PR person, and the assistant general manager. It was tough in those days. They typically traveled in two cars or a small bus everywhere they went. And the current Federal Highway System was not built yet. That would not come until after WWII. They had to travel using local highways and backroads. Nothing about this was easy.
Sometimes, two well-known barnstorming teams would travel together and play each other in town after town, night after night, and splitting the admission charge. This was a good way to ensure you had a good game because you knew who you were playing. You did not have to worry about traveling to a small town and playing a bunch of weak locals. That would often become an awkward situation. You definitely wanted to beat the locals, but you did not want to embarrass them. Otherwise, you would not be invited back. And your income was based on towns inviting you back. You wanted the locals to feel like they were in it until the end.
That way they asked you back for a rematch. Even when it was two barnstorming teams playing each other, they would keep the game close until the last few minutes. You had to give the audience a show. Blowout games were bad for business.
Harlem, NY - 1923
This brings us to the New York Rens. They were founded in 1923 in Harlem, New York. They took their name from the building where they played their home games, The Renaissance Ballroom. The relationship was mutually beneficial. The team had a place to play and make money, and the ballroom got free advertising for their casino and hotel. Often the ballroom would feature a Rens game followed by a dance for a single price. Tables and chairs would be set out where you could watch the game and then stick around for a dance afterward where a big band would come in and play music. It was a win-win situation.
But, what made the Rens unique among barnstorming teams is that they were an all-black team. The Rens best teams were in the 1920s and 1930s, back then Harlem was the place to be. If you have ever seen the movie Harlem Nights with Eddie Murphy and Richard Pryor then you will have a good idea of what Harlem was like back then. There was a real black middle class. Black businesses were booming. It was the roaring 20s. From this environment came the Rens.
Back then players of color were not allowed to play in the professional leagues of their day. It was not like baseball where separate leagues existed for the black players. There was no such league for basketball players. If you were not a white player then you had to find a different way of making your money because playing in the existing professional leagues was simply not going to happen.
The Color Barrier
But if there is any sort of silver lining here, it is that the Rens had no trouble scheduling a game. Hardly any of the white teams actually had any problem playing against the Rens. Today we would call these games friendlies or exhibition games. They did not count towards any standings and there were no playoffs at the end of the season. They just scheduled as many games as they could, collect their share of the ticket sales, and move on.
Again, the white teams had no problem playing the Rens. In fact, they loved playing against the Rens because when you played the Rens, you played the best. When the best teams play each other you can sell a lot of tickets and everyone wins. Back then, even like today, if you think you are the best at your sport, you want to play against the best. It doesn’t matter what color their skin is. In fact, the only color that really mattered to most of the people involved was green, as in money.
Even when they traveled outside of New York to rural and semi-rural locales to play, they could always find a game. Their reputation preceded them. The Rens were known among basketball fans nationwide as one of the best teams in the world. But, as you can imagine, traveling through most of these areas required a bit of finesse. Many white fans had no problem paying for a ticket to see this amazing team from New York play, but that same team was not allowed to stay in the white hotels in town. That was only for white players.
The Rens often had to stay in roadside motels that allowed black guests. Or, in most cases, the players would end up staying in the homes of local black families if no hotel in the area allowed them. There was a known network of black families willing to house black players when they traveled through their town.
As for dining options, forget about eating in a restaurant when they were on the road. Usually, they had to stop in at a black-owned grocery store to buy bread, bologna, and maybe some sodas or beer. Then they would just make sandwiches in the car while they drove. If they were lucky there might be a restaurant willing to serve them to-go orders through the back door of the kitchen. But, that was as good as it was going to get until they could return home to Harlem. In Harlem, they were celebrities who could eat and stay wherever they wanted.
Hall of Fame
And there is a reason that they are in the Hall of Fame as a team. Their contribution to the game of basketball was incredible. They were one of the first teams to play an offensive system that used a post player. Prior to the Rens most teams played with all five players on offense lined up around the perimeter and the players would pass it back and forth until someone became open for a jump shot. But with a post man in the middle, it allowed for a more efficient offense.
With a post man, the give and go became a regular part of their offense inspiring other teams to experiment with a post player. Also by making the entry pass into the middle, it could cause the defense to collapse, and then the post man could kick it back out to a perimeter player for an open jump shot. Today, elementary school teams will play like this, but back then it was absolutely revolutionary. Back then the basketball landscape was like the Wild West. It was wide and open. You were free to try new ideas. The ones that worked stuck around and the ones that didn’t just disappear. Experimentation was happening everywhere.
The Rens were one of the best. In 1933 they went on an 88 game winning streak. From 1932 to 1936, a five-year run, they amassed a record of 497 wins against just 58 losses. That is a winning percentage of 88% over five years. Even the recent five-year run by the Golden State Warriors was only at 78 percent. The Rens smoked teams left and right. They were a juggernaut.
World Pro Tournament - 1939
But there was one formal competition that was open to all teams regardless of color. It was the World Pro Tournament, held in Chicago each year. It was sort of a World Cup-style tournament where the best teams from all over the country would show up for this thing. It was a guaranteed sellout at the old Chicago Stadiums where Michael Jordan would later play. They could pack that place out with up to 15,000 fans for a game. The further you made it in the tournament the more you got paid. The Rens won that tournament in 1939 and could officially call themselves the best team in the world.
Pop Gates, Wee Willie Smith, and Tarzan Cooper were some of their marquee players. Their contribution to basketball has been largely forgotten which is why we do this, to keep their contributions to the game alive. They established a style that many teams copied, and that was a good thing.
The End of the Road
Barnstorming continued to thrive through the late 40s. The Rens played their last game in 1949 before folding. You see, by the time the early 50s rolled around the idea of barnstorming had lost its steam. The NBA had been established for several years and had proven to be the first truly stable professional basketball league. The money was pretty good, so it attracted the best players to play in it. They also allowed black players to play in the league, so there was no longer a guarantee that the Rens could get the best black players. Soon all of the barnstorming teams closed down; white, black, and otherwise.
The NBA had taken over and the barnstorming era was done. But, there is actually one team from that era that is still playing today. Just one. Around the late 40s, they saw what was coming so they decided to add more comedy to their game. They turned their basketball games into a basketball-themed comedy show. They had to. It was either adapt or go out of business. That team is the Harlem Globetrotters. But, that is a discussion for another day.
My goal is for us to remember one of the greatest professional teams from the first 50 years of the game. The New York Renaissance should never be forgotten.