Historic New York Rens Basketball Team Honored With Commemorative On-Court Mural At Harlem Playground

July 8, 2024

By Glenn Hunter

I had the pleasure of attending the ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the new on-court mural at Howard Bennett Playground on West 135th Street in Harlem, NY, which commemorates the legendary New York Rens basketball team.

The Rens were the first Black-owned, fully professional, African American basketball team in history, formed in Harlem in 1923. They were arguably the most successful basketball team of the last century, irrespective of race or ethnicity. From 1923 to 1948, the Rens won 2,588 of 3,117 games for a staggering 83% winning percentage sustained over a 25-year period.  Seven former Rens players are individually enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame (Tarzan Cooper, Pop Gates, Nat Clifton, John Isaacs, Zack Clayton, Fats Jenkins, and Sonny Boswell) and so is the team’s owner, Robert “Bob” Douglas. The 1932-33 New York Renaissance team was collectively inducted in recognition of their 88-game winning streak that season, the longest in pro basketball. The commemorative mural was the result of tireless efforts by the Black Fives Foundation, made possible through financial support from SLAM and within the New York City Parks and Recreation Department’s Art-In-The-Parks program. The ceremony was wonderfully staged by PUMA to include students and staff from adjacent P.S. 197 and was attended by numerous community members as well as special guests and elected officials. Among those present were Manhattan Parks Commissioner Tricia Shimamura, Manhattan Deputy Borough President Keisha Sutton-James, basketball legend and Dallas Mavericks assistant coach God Shammgod, UCONN Women’s Basketball star KK Arnold representing the Black Fives Foundation as their Education and Leadership Ambassador. Local community members present included Russel Shuler, James Harding, Darryl T. Downing, Pierre M. “Pepe” Sutton, Darryl K. Roberts, and yours truly, representing the Harlem Cultural Archives (HCA), as well as others representing Riverton Houses, Lincoln Houses, and Lenox Terrace, both young and old.

Descendants of New York Rens players Zack Clayton, John Isaacs, Spencer “Stretch” Hill, and William “Dolly” King were there too, including SUNY Chancellor and former US Secretary of Education John King, Jr., the nephew of Dolly King.

Students from P.S. 197 spoke eloquently about having the newly refurbished basketball court in their “backyard” and were treated to some fun activities.

“Glenn Hunter of the Harlem Cultural Archives got well-deserved shoutouts from me as well as from Keisha because he brought this project to her attention and that got her involved, which made a big difference,” said Johnson. It was a heart-warming moment for me since I also helped facilitate the well-deserved 2022 recognition of the New York Rens with the co-naming of the street sign on the southeast corner of West 138th Street and Adam Clayton, Jr. Blvd. to “New York Rens Court,” in honor of the former site of the Renaissance Ballroom where they played their home games, sponsored by the HCA.

This new commemorative court mural ensures that their legacy will continue to inspire future generations in Harlem and beyond.

Glenn Hunter

Harlem historian Glenn Hunter, Harlem Cultural Archives, Co-Founder and Co-Executive Director. Other co-founders Ken Sargeant and Keith Hunter. Glenn is a career educator who specializes in math and information technology. He is an Adjunct Lecturer at Baruch College and a tireless community organizer devoted to Harlem. https://www.harlemcultural.org/

Photo credit: 1-5) Harlem Cultural Archives.

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