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Robert L. “Bob” Douglas

Robert L. “Bob” Douglas

He never scored a point, pulled down a rebound or made a highlight reel with a behind-the-back, no-look pass, but every LeBron, Magic or Shaq can thank Robert “Bob” Douglas for helping them to realize their hoop dreams.

Known as the “Father of Black Professional Basketball,” Douglas was the first African American owner and coach of a professional basketball team, the New York Renaissance. The Rens, as they were called, were a barnstorming team of professional black ballers who ran roughshod over opponents across the country for nearly a quarter of a century. The team played nearly every day during the season and often twice on Sundays.

Douglas’ Rens defeated nearly every team — both all-white and all-black teams — that stood in their path from 1923 to 1949. At one point during their 1932 to 1933 season, the Rens won 88 consecutive games en route to a 122-8 record.

“He assembled a team of Black players, all with different degrees of skill in the game, and toured the country, playing in dance halls, barns, and anywhere a basketball court could be constructed,” an article in the Amsterdam News noted.

Douglas founded the Rens mainly because he became frustrated with losing so many of his players to professional leagues. Looking for a home court, Douglas made a deal with the owner of the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem: The casino owner would let the team use its ballroom for home games if Douglas would allow the team to be called “The Renaissance.”

The Rens traveled mainly by bus and because of racial discrimination and they were not allowed to eat in restaurants or sleep in hotels in many of the cities in which they played. Therefore, the Rens often found themselves eating cold meals and sleeping on the bus.

One of their main opponents was the Original Celtics, a talented all-white team from the New York area. Games between the two teams drew large crowds, often as many as 15,000 spectators. Although the players never came to blows during the games, raucous fans on each side hurled barbs throughout the games.

In 1972, Douglas was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a contributor, not a coach or owner. He was the first African American to receive entry to the hall. To many players and fans, however, Douglas’s entry was long overdue.

Longtime Boston Celtics great Bill Russell, who was first black player to be elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, declined to attend his own enshrinement ceremony in 1975 because he felt that African American basketball pioneers — like Douglas — had been overlooked in past years.

Douglas died in New York in 1979 at age 96.



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