On February 13, 1923, the New York Renaissance, the first all-Black professional basketball team, is organized. The Renaissance, commonly called the Rens, become one of the dominant teams of the 1920s and 1930s.
The team’s founder was Robert L. Douglas, whose primary objective was to give New York City’s male, Black athletes opportunities to better themselves. In February 1923, Douglas struck an agreement with William Roach, a Harlem-based real estate developer who owned the New Renaissance Ballroom and Casino, and the Rens were born.
With Black players barred from professional basketball leagues, the Rens barnstormed throughout the country, often competing against all-white teams.
Along with owning the team, Douglas coached it from its inception through its last game in 1949. Douglas was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor in 1972. One of the greatest players in the sport’s history recognized his impact.
“I tried to spread the word [about Douglas] with my book and documentary, On the Shoulder of Giants,” Kareem Abdul-Jabbar told The Undefeated in 2017. “I did both to make people aware of the Rens’ contribution to basketball because it’s important that we honor those pioneers who made this billion-dollar industry possible.”
The team played its first game November 3, 1923, winning 28-22 against the Collegiate Five—an all-white team.
“The Rens‘ immediate success and notoriety helped shift the presence of African-American sports from the amateur level to the professional level,” wrote NYHoops.org. “They were able to compete with and even defeat the original Boston Celtics, who were one of the dominant professional white teams during that era.”
In the 1932-33 season, the Rens, led by future Hall of Famers William “Pop” Gates and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, won 88 consecutive games.
In 1939—seven years before the launch of the NBA—the Rens won the World Professional Basketball tournament. In 1949, the Rens, then based in Dayton, Ohio, played their last game as part of the racially integrated National Basketball League. By that time, the NBA was up and running, and interest in barnstorming basketball had waned.
In 1963, the Rens team was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.