Looking back, the Harlem Globetrotters did more harm to the cause of racial equality than good.
True, over the last eight decades the Globetrotters became arguably the most famous professional sports team on the planet. But they did it by reducing themselves to clowning, by exploiting racial stereotypes.
The Globetrotters essentially became the athletic equivalent of the blackface minstrel shows that dominated American theaters more than a century ago.
And perhaps the most unfortunate result of the 'Trotters success has been the overshadowing of the team that truly deserves recognition as perhaps the most important and influential basketball squad in history: the New York Renaissance Big Five.
Founded by entrepreneur Bob Douglas in 1923 --- four years before huckster Abe Saperstein created the Harlem Globetrotters (who were from Chicago, not Harlem) --- the Renaissance literally revolutionized the sport of basketball.
The first fully professional African-American basketball team, the Rens invented the motion offense, stressed crisp passing, and played with a brainy, heads-up alertness that transformed the team into a coldly efficient and wildly dazzling juggernaut that steamrolled almost all of its competition.
Over the Renaissance's 26-year existence, the team compiled an overall record of 2,318-381, which included an 88-game winning streak during the 1932-33 season. In 1939 the Rens won the first universally recognized world professional championship by emerging victorious in an 11-team tournament in Chicago.
"You just can't take it away from them," respected sportswriter Chester Washington Jr. wrote in the Pittsburgh Courier after the 1939 tournament. "The Rens still reign supreme as the greatest pro basketball team in the country."
With such conquests, the Rens almost single-handedly proved that African-American players had as much intelligence, heart, and hustle as the best white players.
When the New York Renaissance played white teams, says John Isaacs, the last living Ren, it always tried to race to a double-digit lead. The Rens had to, he says, if they wanted to overcome the inevitable racism of the white officials.
"You got 10 points as fast as you could, because you assumed those were the 10 points you weren't going to get from the officiating," he says.
Such prejudice was just a part of life for Isaacs and his teammates in the 1930s. And such prejudice lingers today. Despite their massive importance, at the start of 2005 only two Rens --- Charles "Tarzan" Cooper and William "Pop" Gates --- had been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as individual players. And, as New York Daily News writer Filip Bondy recently noted, the Original Celtics --- the Rens' powerful white contemporaries --- have twice as many players in the Hall.
That ratio could change, however, next Monday, April 4, when the Hall announces its 2005 inductees. Isaacs, as it turns out, is one of the finalists. And if he's selected, it could signal a change, however small, in the basketball world's attitude toward the woefully underappreciated Rens.
But regardless of whether Isaacs and his teammates ever get the recognition they deserve, it's not going to change the fact that Isaacs still volunteers on an almost daily basis at the Madison Square Boys & Girls Club in the Bronx. It's not going to change the fact that Isaacs loves working with kids, loves imparting his knowledge, loves talking about his wonderful experiences as a New York Ren.
"Basketball is a fun game," he says. "I had fun when I was playing. I had fun going to the gym and shooting around, and I have fun playing with the kids today."
Isaacs is now 89. And he's turned into a basketball curmudgeon. Today's NBA stars are too flashy, too shallow, too disrespectful to coaches and officials for his tastes. They dribble and shoot too much, pass and D-up too little.
The Rens were too busy, too excited, too tired to fully appreciate their role as pioneers. "We never gave it a thought," Isaacs says. "It was your job. Once the game started, it was all business."
And that's all basketball was to Abe Saperstein: business. All he cared about was putting people in the seats. So he told his players to work gags and practical jokes into their games.
New York Renaissance owner Bob Douglas loved making money, too. In fact, he probably wouldn't have founded and sustained the Rens if they didn't make him a handsome profit.
But Douglas also realized the value of dignity. He understood that his Rens were role models for black youth everywhere. So he told them to play it straight, and play it well.
Douglas and his team became the antithesis of the Harlem Globetrotters, and in so doing, they became the greater team, perhaps the greatest of all time.