William “Dolly” King, the 6-foot 4-inch, 220-lb. star center and captain of the undefeated LIU Blackbirds, left his team mid-season to join the all-black New York Rens.
On March 1, 1941 in Cleveland, Ohio, the all-black New York Renaissance played in the first round of the inaugural Max Rosenblum Invitational Pro Basketball Tournament.
William “Dolly” King, the 6-foot, 4-inch, 220-lb. star center and captain of the undefeated Long Island University Blackbirds, left his team mid-season to join the Rens so he could play with them in this event.
The L.I.U. Blackbirds, under legendary Basketball Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee, went on to post a 41-0 record and win the 1941 National Invitational Tournament.
Why would a college basketball star on an undefeated team make a move like that? What was so great about this tournament in Cleveland?
The answer is easy if you consider that none of the professional basketball leagues signed African American players at the time, not even the best black players.
So, the answer is that although principle probably had something to do with it, the main cause of his leaving L.I.U. was the potential money.
The purse for the Rosenblum tournament was $1,500, a very large sum back then considering that a month’s rent was around $20 to $30.
The Rens, meanwhile, were on their way to Chicago to compete in the even bigger World’s Professional Basketball Tournament. The purse for the World Pro Tournament was enormous in comparison: $10,000.
The Rens were the only African American team entered in the tournament.
The other contenders were the Detroit Eagles of the National Basketball League, the Philadelphia SPHAs of the American Basketball League, and the independent New York Original Celtics.
Max Rosenblum, a Jewish entrepreneur and the owner of Rosenblum’s Clothing Store on Euclid Street, sponsored the event.
“Just name your terms, at Rosenblums,” was the store’s slogan. Too bad King couldn’t name his terms in a professional basketball league.
The Rens lost their first round game to the SPHAs, 55-48, in front of 4,500 spectators at Cleveland’s Public Auditorium.
The following night they beat the Detroit Eagles in the consolation game, 49-45, with 6,500 fans on hand.
The tournament was a huge success for Rosenblum.
King was the high scorer.
A few weeks later the Rens played in the World Pro Basketball Tournament at the International Amphitheater in Chicago, where the average attendance was 15,000.
They won their first 2 games, outmatching the Dayton Sucher Wonders (43-20) and the Kenosha Royals (43-15), but lost to the Detroit Eagles in the semi-final round, 43-42.
The Rens came back to win the consolation game, beating the Toledo White Huts, 57-42.
King made the all-tournament team.
Considering that “Dolly” King would not have been drafted into a pro league anyway, was it worth it?
King went on to have a marvelous career, eventually helping break the color barrier in professional basketball when he signed with the Rochester Royals of the N.B.L. in 1946. He also led a rich life of community service. King died of a heart attack in February, 1969.
He was enshrined in the L.I.U. Sports Hall of Fame in 2000.