1939 the first World Professional Basketball Tournament

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“At the time there were no less than a score of professional basketball teams, all advertising themselves as world’s champions”
Eddie Cochrane

Archie Ward and Eddie Cochrane were looking for an idea.

Both of them worked for the Chicago American, a Chicago Newspaper owned by W. R. Hearst, Archie as Sport editor and Eddie as chief of the sport page. Archie Ward knew everybody in the city, especially in the football, American football, field. Eddie was the typical journalist of his time, the 30s, always looking for news and, in case there were none, ready to create them.

They wanted to organize some kind of event in Chicago to fill the sport pages. The main sports were booked. Boxing already had its matches set up and it was not advisable to disturb their organization. Football and baseball played their own leagues. Cycling had gone bankrupt during the great depression, and the velodromes laid unused in memory of the good times.

Basketball did not come to mind as the first sport, which may seem odd nowadays. College games filled the arenas, though. In New York Ned Irish arranged doubleheaders at the Madison Square Garden. Two games, one after the other, four teams and a lot of money.

Basketball laid low in the list of professional sports. After the college a player could join one of the professional teams that played in fragile leagues, that folded in a short time, or that barnstormed the country playing against anyone, often hundreds of games per year. Sometimes the barnstorming teams would play against each other series that would decree an unofficial world champion.

However, there was no professional official world champion, like in baseball and in football. The leagues did not meet each other, outside the games the teams played because they organized on their own.

Therefore, the idea was there. The newspaper would establish a “professional” world championship, officially crowning the best professional team in the country. They would invite the best teams and manage to make them meet, thus setting up the best matchups the national professional basketball could give.

Ward and Cochrane looked around. One team, at least, played under their eyes. The Harlem Globetrotters were the best team in the Chicago Area. Abe Saperstein founded them in 1922 as an all-black team. The Globetrotter Hotel and Casino allowed them to set up the court in their facility, in order to entertain the customers.

The Globetrotters barnstormed the Midwest mainly. They would go to places in northern Illinois battered by the Great Depression, where a black man had never been seen. The tickets would cost some cents, and the Globetrotters would play two or three times a day to earn more money.

Nevertheless, the Globetrotters were not the best all black team in the nation. The New York Renaissance, another all black team, played their home games at the Casino Renaissance in New York, in which they represented the major attraction on Saturday evenings, before the dancing began. Robert Douglas, a black man from the Caribbean, created them in 1918, as the first all-black team in America. Douglas, an elegant man with slight English accent, thought that the black boys in Harlem, with their physical talent, deserved a team to play with. He selected to players and agreed with the Renaissance Casino in Harlem to be the major attraction in the key nights.

The Renaissance, or Rens, dominated the 30s, featuring all of famers like Charles Cooper, nicknamed Tarzan, the guard Joe “wonder boy” Isaacs, whom Chris Mullin would remember as a coach in his summers in basketball camps, Clarence Jenkins, Pop Gates and others. They did not play both in the NBL and in the ABL, the two main leagues at the time, because they were black teams and the unwritten rules of segregation kept the official games away from them.

Nevertheless, they played against the best teams of the time, the Celtics, the SPHAS, the Kautskys in Indianapolis, proving to be overall the best ones around. Out of the big cities, the Renaissance had to sleep in the car, and asked their white opponents to buy food for them in shops in which they could not access.

It would have been difficult to invite them in a city of the south, Georgia or Alabama. Chicago, nevertheless, opened the walls of the segregation allowing the African Americans to join the unions with white workers and other initiatives.

Ward and Cochrane tried to invite also Eddie Gottlieb’s SPHAS, but the American Basketball League played its playoffs games in that period. Also, Gottlieb played the home games in a Hotel in Philadephia. He had booked all the nights, and this made it very expensive for him to give them up.

The National Basketball League (NBL) included teams from the Midwest, so it was much easier for the two powerhouses of the league, the Sheboygan Redskins and the Oshkosk All-Stars, to join the tournament, thus making the NBL part of it.

Leroy “Cowboy” Edwards starred in Oshkosh. Coming from Kentucky, in which he was one of the first big-men of Adolph Rupp, though just being 1,98 mt, he left the college after two years, in which he led the Kentucky freshmen team to an undefeated season and, as a sophomore, to a 19-2 record. Edwards was the premiere player of the country in his role and his clashes with Cooper, of the Rens, gave life to a strong but loyal rivalry, something not easy between a black and a white player.

Ward and Cochrane selected also the New York Yankees, the New York Celtics (the last remnant of the team that dominated the 20s), the Fort Wayne Harvesters (later renamed Pistons, and relocated to Detroit, maybe somebody knows them…), the Clarcksburg Oil, the Benton Harbour House of David (the strange sport arm of a religious sect), the Chicago Harmon and the Illinois Grads.

The games took place at the Madison Armory the first day. Renaissance, Oshkosh and Celtics, played the second day, directly in the quarter final round.

First Round

Madison Street Armory   8000 26Mar39  Harlem 41, Fort Wayne 33

Madison Street Armory         26Mar39   New York Y. 40, Benton Harbor 32

Madison Street Armory         26Mar39   Sheboygan 47, Illinois 29

 

Quarter-final Round

Madison Street Armory         26Mar39   New York R. 30, New York Y. 21

Madison Street Armory         26Mar39   Harlem 31, Chicago 25

Chicago Coliseum                    27Mar39   Sheboygan 36, New York 29

The first semi-final saw the Renaissance against the Globetrotters. The Rens beat the Globetrotters 27 – 23 in a very tough game.

The Renaissance had a reason to want this victory more than ever: the Globetrotters had stolen the name of Harlem. The Rens truly came from Harlem, where the Renaissance Casino was located, while Saperstein chose the name Harlem because the “Harlem Renaissance”, the artistic movement of writers, musicians, poets and artists of African American origin, was very famous at the time. Nevertheless, the Globetrotters played in Harlem for the first time only in 1968.

In the second game of the semifinal Oshkosh easily routed Sheboygan, setting up the clash in the final between the all-stars and the Rens.

The two teams knew each other well, they often organized against each other. The Renaissance were very famous and the All Stars had a solid fan base. Cooper and Edwards represented the best clash of centers in the country. Everything was ready for a great Final.

The Renaissance started strong and held Edwards at 12 points. They finished the first half up by 24 to 11, and then defended the result. In those years, after every basket, the referees had to tip the ball off at midcourt. This slowed the game and ensured that the team with the best center could have the ball in its hands, even after scoring.

The players shot with both hands from the chest. Dribbling the ball was difficult because of the wire used to sew it. The sewing was external and this made it difficult to manage it.

There are not many articles about the final. The Oshkosh Northwestern, a local newspaper, the day after, wrote about the game in a brief note at the left of a long one, about the victory of a high school team in the local conference. It is funny to note that the newspaper refers to Oshkosh as “pro-cagers”, a nickname that originates from the first days of basketball, when the game took place in cages and the ball could not get out.

Archie Ward remain involved in sports, especially in football. Created the MLB all star game, was the commissioner of the All America Football Conference, a competitor of the NFL, and had the idea of the Golden Gloves, amateur boxing’s most important tournament.

Eddie Cochrane became the head of the sport pages of all the Hearst publications.

The World Professional Basketball Tournament was a step in the long walk that put professional basketball on the map. So far, there had been several trials: failed leagues, barnstorming teams, tournaments in the biggest cities, with teams changing on a day-by-day basis. This Tournament was a real testing of the interest of the people in professional basketball.

The victory of a “colored team”, as the Oshkosh Northwestern put it, was as well important. In an age of segregation, basketball was one of the few sports in which whites and blacks could regularly play against each other. Racial slurs often punctuated the Rens’ games, and the same happened to the SPHAS, Eddie Gottlieb’s team in Philadelphia, made of Jewish players.

This was long before the civil liberties fights of the 60s, before Martin Luther King, before Rose Parks decided not to get up from the seat in the bus.

The morning after the game, the organization delivered the jackets of the champions to the Rens’ hotel. Joe “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, the point guard, read the sentence sewed on them: “Colored World Champions”.

He got angry. They had won the title, and it was not just the title of the colored people. Ha asked the hotel for shears and sat down to erase the word “colored”. Bob Douglas saw him and told him: “you’re ruining the jackets. What are you doing?”

“World champions ain’t got no colors” said Isaacs. A couple of hours later the jackets only had the “World Champions” words on.

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