New Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Movie Debuts
‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ Educates, Inspires Next Generation
by Patrick Crawley / @BasketballFiend
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s new documentary On the Shoulders of Giants is meant to be an education, an introduction to the Harlem Rens, an all-black independent team that won over 2,500 games between 1922 and 1949.
Bill Russell was there. So were James Worthy, Carmelo Anthony and 27-time Grammy winner Quincy Jones. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa introduced the documentary. Norm Nixon moderated the panel discussion afterward. It was definitely a fun night and an eye-opening experience.
As someone who had never heard of Bob Douglas and the Renaissance (the team was named for the dance hall/casino they played in), I was one of roughly 200 students in the classroom of NBA legends the other night.
Here are some of the lessons I learned, courtesy of Giants and the panel talk that followed:
-In their 28 years of existence, the Rens were 2,588-529 (a winning percentage of 83%). To put that in perspective, the Lakers are 4,950-3,065 all-time (62%). The Celtics are 3,012-2,045 (60%). There was a stretch from 1932-33 where the Rens went 112-7. They won a World Basketball Tournament championship in 1939. Legendary coach John Wooden: “To this day, I have never seen a team play better team basketball.” That’s saying something.
-The Rens were not only awesome on the court, they also had the best nicknames of all-time. They were a well-oiled machine of passing and defense led by guys with names like Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, William “Pop” Gates and John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs. Who wouldn’t want to play with guys named Tarzan and Wonder Boy? That’d be amazing. Also, I’m fairly certain Tarzan and Wonder Boy is the name of show on Cartoon Network.
-The Rens were founded in 1922 and played at the Renaissance Casino Ballroom. They played with a ball with laces on a surface made more for Fred Astaire than Tarzan Cooper. After games, their court was converted to a dance floor. Refresh my memory. Did the Showtime Lakers have to deal with conditions like that? I can’t remember.
-Bob Douglas, the owner of the Rens, was the first African-American inducted into the Hall of Fame. Douglas was the man. Not only did he introduce the sport to the concept of naming rights (his team was sponsored by the building they played in), he also had the guts to take his team on barnstorming tours through famously racist states like KKK-infest Indiana. Douglas’ vision for the game paved the way for Kareem, Bill Russell and the rest of the greats (Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, etc.). He’s a pioneer. If you haven’t heard of him, look him up.
-The Harlem Globetrotters were from Chicago. This blew my mind—like finding out the Clippers were originally from Buffalo (Buffalo!). How did that come about? I’ll tell you how. The Globetrotters were a traveling team like the Rens, but they were more performance based. The name was for marketing purposes. They wanted fans to expect them to be black so they threw “Harlem” in front of Globetrotters. In the doc, the writers equate it to minstrel-ism. There was definitely bad blood between the Globetrotters and the Rens.
The Globetrotters’ owner, Abe Saperpstein, underpaid and mistreated his players (according to the documentary), and he also goaded the Rens by saying the Globetrotters were better in public, then backing out of head-to-head matchups in private. The ‘Trotters were an act first and foremost. They messed around with tricks until the game was in danger, then they took it up a notch. When they finally did take on the Rens, in the semi-finals of the 1939 World Basketball Tournament, they lost. The Rens went on to beat the all-white Oshkosh All-Stars (yes, that’s a real name) in the championship.
-There was a barnstorming team called the Original Celtics. They were unrelated to the NBA Celtics. They were the Rens’ rivals. Led by Joe Lapchick, they would routinely beat up on the Rens despite playing hungover (the Rens players would elbow them in the side to make them throw up on the court). In private, the teams got along, but publicly they appeared to hate each other to discourage fans from rioting. Later, Lapchick brought former Ren Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton into the League as the first black player to sign an NBA contract.
-The Rens had a bodyguard that traveled with them for the sole purpose of making sure the owners of the venues they played in paid up. They would get shorted so often they had to hire a dude with a gun to collect for them, Goodfellas-style. Seems potentially (key word, potentially) underhanded to me. But, given the racist climate of the time, it was probably completely justified.
-The team traveled a purported 38,000 miles a year in an old school bus called the Blue Goose. Ah, to be a basketball pioneer.
-After their basketball careers were done, many of the Rens went on to work menial jobs. That made me sad. Some of the best players of all-time played out the rest of their lives mopping floors. Players today owe them a huge debt of gratitude. Just ask James Worthy…“I think this movie should be a part of the NBA rookie camp. I think they should watch the movie and read the book and there should be a test…I’m going to campaign to David Stern to make it happen.”
Couldn’t agree more, Big Game James. I learned a lot watching this film—and documented most of it on my iPhone. Kareem, I hope you didn’t think I was texting.