When SLAM asked me to write something about 93-year-old former professional basketball player John Isaacs, I wanted to go beyond what’s been told (and retold) before. I wanted to tell what matters most.
Again, happy birthday John!
“The Art of Giving — Harlem Rens Style”
by Claude Johnson
(This is my original text, which differs slightly from what SLAM published, in that they retitled the article, calling it “Harlem When: John Isaacs Is Still Dropping Knowledge,” and made one minor editorial change.)
When SLAM asked me to write something about 93-year-old former professional basketball player John Isaacs, I wanted to go beyond what’s been told (and retold) before.
I wanted to tell what matters most.
So I invited John to mix it up with me about the meaning of his life — so far.
“Most people think basketball is a way out, but for me it’s always been a way in,” explains Isaacs, who says it was never only about the game. Basketball has allowed him to help make a difference in people’s lives.
“The Rens didn’t just represent Harlem,” he says, “we made black America proud as much as Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, or Jackie Robinson.”
Ever humble, Isaacs seems more fulfilled with what he’s been able to accomplish through the game.
I wanted to get to the essence of that.
“The most important thing back then is still as important now,” he says, leaning closer. “It’s giving. What can you give?”
Isaacs has given too much to list here, in both time and money, but mostly of his heart. Still, a taste wouldn’t hurt.
Isaacs was a fiery, powerfully built 6′-1″, 190 lb. All-City guard who led his Textile High School (now Hughes H. S.) basketball team to the New York City High School Basketball championship title in 1935.
The owner of the Harlem-based New York Renaissance (“Rens”), Hall of Fame member Robert Douglas, immediately offered him a pro basketball contract. “Yes,” Isaacs replied, “but I have to go home and clear it with my mother.”
Mom said, “yes.”
Isaacs promptly led the all-black Rens to astonishing season records of 122-19, 121-19, and 127-15, followed by the championship title in the first World’s Professional Basketball Tournament, held in 1939 at the old Chicago Stadium, the building Michael Jordan made famous.
“Pardon me,” Isaacs likes to say, “the Rens brought home New York City’s first official pro basketball title, not the Knicks!”
Isaacs won the title again in 1943 as a star with the all-black Washington (D.C.) Bears.
“We earned about $125 per month back then,” Isaacs says, “so the tournament prize money was a big deal.”
The Rens and Bears are only now beginning to get mainstream commercial attention, thanks to a vintage-inspired sneaker collection by Converse that commemorates their legacy.
After leaving the Rens and Bears, Isaacs played with numerous other all-black pro teams including the Manhattan Nationals, Hazleton Mountaineers (Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League), and Utica Olympics (New York State Professional League), as well as with Brooklyn and Saratoga (American Basketball League) into the early 1950s.
“It was normal,” says Isaacs, “for guys to play in Pennsylvania for one team in the morning and in upstate New York for a different squad in the afternoon.”
How was Isaacs as a teammate? “I liked helping the new guys out,” he says, “after all, that’s what the fellas did for me when I was a rookie, so why not?”
Isaacs, a Panamanian-born New York City transplant, simply may have felt compassion for what it was like to be an outsider.
“I learned my trade mostly from John Isaacs,” says former Harlem Yankees player and collegiate star Donald Hinds, also in his 90s. “I was a jumper, a rebounder, but my jumping didn’t make any sense against Isaacs because he could take a finger and get me off balance and the ball would fall right into his hands.”
The Yankees, a farm team for the Rens, produced such top players over the years as Hank DeZonie, Puggy Bell, and Sonny Woods. Isaacs played for the team as he neared the end of his pro career, and also helped coach.
“He taught me all the tricks of the trade,” Hinds says of Isaacs.
In the late 1940s, Isaacs helped form a pro basketball team in Harlem called the Manhattan Nationals, whose sole purpose was to fight juvenile delinquency. They did it by featuring social service agency youth teams in their preliminary games. The Nationals included Larry Doby, who would soon become the first black player in baseball’s American League, as well as former Rens stars Bell, Charlie Isles, and Isaacs. Isaacs and Isles played without pay, instead donating their earnings and time to the worthy cause.
“Few people know about that,” says Isaacs.
More good will. Each time any of the Rens visited Cleveland, Isaacs would collect funds from his teammates to help former Rens player Willie “Wee Willie” Smith, who had lost a leg to diabetes. Smith, once a 6’-5” center, starred with the Rens in the early 1930s on what many consider to have been the greatest team of the last century.
“It wasn’t a lot, but Willie was always grateful,” Isaacs recalls. Smith died in Cleveland in 1992.
Isaacs is also a tireless fundraiser for the John Hunter Memorial Scholarship Fund, which helps send New York City kids to summer camps and college.
The company he keeps measures the man. At the recent grand opening of the House of Hoops store in Harlem, Isaacs shared the stage with Julius Erving, Charles Barkley, Chris Mullin, and Kenny “The Jet” Smith. He certainly deserves to be in that line-up.
Isaacs coached many future stars, including Mullin himself when the former N.B.A. star was merely a kid. “I reprimanded him one night at a sleepover basketball camp for staying up past curfew,” he remembers. “I made him run laps but I also noticed that he was up early the next morning practicing his jumper from every spot on the court.”
Isaacs also coached teams in the early Rucker Park basketball tournaments and has been a fixture at New York City playgrounds and gyms ever since.
“I cover playground basketball in Harlem for a living, and I’ll see Mr. Isaacs at Pelham Fritz, Uptown Express, Rucker Park, Kingdome,” says publisher, sneaker aficionado, D.J., author, and basketball talent Bobbito Garcia. “He is the immortal teacher, yet humble enough to be the perpetual student.”
Later this year, Isaacs will celebrate 50 years working for the Madison Avenue Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx. 50 years! Wow!
Isaacs has been concerned about youth as far back as he can remember, and admits he too was once a youthful lad running the streets of Harlem sometimes one step ahead of trouble. “My parents were strict,” he says, “and what I noticed at the Boys and Girls Club is that for some of these kids, we have to be their surrogate parents.”
He says he has no problem calling someone’s mother or grandmother to discuss a kid’s behavior or reinforce a suggestion.
According to Isaacs, nothing is more delightful and refreshing than listening to the success stories of his club’s alumnae at their annual reunion.
Isaacs still works there every day! Yet he feels he must ask his supervisor for permission to cut out for an interview. Isaacs has made himself indispensable. Repeat after me: If he can do it, I can do it!
Who wouldn’t be inspired? No wonder 3,000 friends attended his 90th birthday party.
“For only what you give away enriches you from day to day,” John Isaacs likes to say, using a quote from Helen Steiner Rice.
In that case, he’s a very wealthy man.