The Greatest Basketball Team You've Never Heard Of

In the opening chapter of his book, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar recounts the time a reporter asked him what profession he would have chosen if he hadn’t become a pro basketball player. “A history teacher,” answered the 7-foot-2 master of the skyhook, who describes his favorite subject as “a living road map of where others have been, what mistakes they’ve made, and how we can avoid those same mistakes ourselves.” Abdul-Jabbar continues, “Even better, we also see what others have done well and can embrace their triumphs.”

The NBA’s all-time leading scorer’s appreciation for history shines through in the movie adaptation of On the Shoulders of Giants, which he co-produced with Deborah Morales and which I had the good fortune of seeing at a screening that Abdul-Jabbar attended in Washington, DC, earlier this week. The documentary tells the story of the Harlem Rens, the first all-black professional basketball team, who overcame adversity to win more than 2,000 games while barnstorming throughout segregated parts of the country from 1922-1949.

Morales uses 3D animation and other techniques to turn about 30 seconds of original, grainy footage of the Rens, a dozen newspaper articles, and a few photos into a compelling 75-minute production. Narrated by Jamie Foxx and featuring interviews with Spike Lee, Cornel West, and Maya Angelou among many others, the result is a beautifully crafted lesson about an important chapter in American history. Here’s a sampling of what I learned.

The First Naming Rights Deal

Robert Douglas, who had previously organized two all-black amateur basketball teams in Harlem, founded the Rens in 1922. Douglas struck a deal with the owners of the recently opened Harlem Renaissance Casino and Ballroom at 138th Street and 7th Avenue that allowed his team to practice and play its home games in the Renaissance’s ballroom. Baskets were set up on opposite ends of the dance floor, which was slippery and nowhere near regulation size for a basketball court. In return, the team would officially be named the Harlem Renaissance, providing the casino free publicity and another form of entertainment for its patrons. For 55 cents, one could enjoy a night of jazz and basketball.

A 5-Man Jazz Orchestra

Some of the Rens’ greatest players in their three decades of existence included William “Pops” Gates, “Wee” Willie Smith, Charles “Tarzan” Cooper, John Isaacs, and Clarence “Fats” Jenkins. The Rens helped revolutionize the way basketball was played with their hot potato-like passing and constant motion on offense and a smothering defense. The late John Wooden, who played against the Rens as a member of the Indianapolis Kautskys and later coached Abdul-Jabbar at UCLA, called the Rens the greatest team he ever saw and marveled at their passing ability. During one part of the movie, the Rens’ style of play is compared to a jazz orchestra. The center is the drum, the power forward is the bass, and the point guard is the keyboardist. During the question-and-answer session that followed the screening, Abdul-Jabbar described the style of play in today’s NBA as more akin to hip-hop, and he didn’t mean it as a compliment.

Bring on the Globetrotters

While the Rens were fun to watch, their main goal wasn’t to entertain, but to win. In 1926, a new all-black basketball team, the Globetrotters, formed in Chicago. The team’s owner, Abe Sapterstein, added Harlem to the name strictly as a marketing ploy. Saperstein figured that whites would be more comfortable with black players who conformed to white stereotypes and were first and foremost entertainers. As Abdul-Jabbar told NPR’s Robert Siegel in 2007, Saperstein “did not want to go head to head against racial attitudes in this country.” He also didn’t want to go head to head with the Rens. While Saperstein publicly stated that the Globetrotters welcomed the challenge of playing the Rens, he privately refused to schedule a game against them.

Road Trip

In 1928, the Rens barnstormed throughout the Midwest to make a little extra money. By 1931, the team was traveling all over the country and playing 6-7 times a week. The Rens encountered hostile crowds and race riots in the South and it was often a struggle just to find a place to sleep. Nevertheless, the Rens won 88 straight games from January 1 to March 27, 1933. Joe Lapchick and the Original Celtics, another one of the Rens’ biggest rivals, ended the streak. The 1933 team is enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The Colored World Champions

The Globetrotters and Rens met in the semifinals of the first World’s Pro Basketball Championship, which was held in Chicago in 1939. According to Ron Thomas, the author of They Cleared the Lane: The NBA’s Black Pioneers, the Globetrotters’ comedy routines didn’t become their dominant style of play until the 1940s. There were few, if any, antics during the showdown in Chicago, as the Rens held off a late rally by the Globetrotters and rode the momentum of that win to the title. From the New York Times’ account of the championship game: “The New York Renaissance, smooth-working Negro five, defeated the Oshkosh, Wis., All-Stars tonight, 34 to 25, for the national professional basketball championship. The margin was characteristic of the Rens’ decisive march to the title in a field of eleven teams. The Harlem Globe Trotters gave the new champions their closest game, 27-23, in a semi-final.”

Douglas ordered commemorative jackets for his team that read “N.Y. Rens Colored World Champions.” As recounted in the movie and on NBA.com, Isaacs promptly removed the word “Colored” from his jacket using a razor blade. When Douglas protested that he had ruined the gift, Isaacs responded, “No, I just made it real.”

Breaking the NBA’s Color Barrier

The NBA remained segregated until 1950. That year, Chuck Cooper became the first black player drafted, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton became the first black player to sign an NBA contract, and Earl Lloyd became the first black player to appear in a game. Joe Lapchick, who befriended Bob Douglas over the years and was the head coach of the New York Knicks at the time, orchestrated the signing of Clifton, who had played for the Rens and Globetrotters.

What’s Next?

On the Shoulders of Giants is available on Netflix and Morales and Abdul-Jabbar hope to get the film incorporated in high school social studies curriculums. (A Teachers’ Kit is available for $150 on Abdul-Jabbar’s website.) As Leonard Maltin wrote, “It’s easy to say that a film like this should be shown to schoolchildren and budding athletes—as it should—but I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t respond to such a fascinating topic, presented in such appealing fashion.” Do yourself a favor and check it out.

14 Retro Gifts for Millennials

Ravi Palwe, Unsplash
Ravi Palwe, Unsplash

Millennials were born between 1981 and 1996, which means the pop culture they grew up with is officially retro. No matter what generation you belong to, consider these gifts when shopping for the Millennials in your life this holiday season.

1. Reptar Funko Pop!; $29

Amazon

This vinyl Reptar figurine from Funko is as cool as anything you’d find in the rugrats’ toy box. The monster dinosaur has been redesigned in classic Pop! style, making it a perfect desk or shelf accessory for the grown-up Nickelodeon fan. It also glows in the dark, which should appeal to anyone’s inner child.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Dragon Ball Z Slippers; $20

Hot Topic

You don’t need to change out of your pajamas to feel like a Super Saiyan. These slippers are emblazoned with the same kanji Goku wears on his gi in Dragon Ball Z: one for training under King Kai and one for training with Master Roshi. And with a soft sherpa lining, the footwear feels as good as it looks.

Buy it: Hot Topic

3. The Pokémon Cookbook; $15

Hop Topic

What do you eat after a long day of training and catching Pokémon? Any dish in The Pokémon Cookbook is a great option. This book features more than 35 recipes inspired by creatures from the Pokémon franchise, including Poké Ball sushi rolls and mashed Meowth potatoes.

Buy it: Hot Topic

4. Lisa Frank Activity Book; $5

Urban Outfitters

Millennials will never be too old for Lisa Frank, especially when the artist’s playful designs come in a relaxing activity book. Watercolor brings the rainbow characters in this collection to life. Just gather some painting supplies and put on a podcast for a relaxing, nostalgia-fueled afternoon.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

5. Shoebox Tape Recorder with USB; $28

Amazon

The days of recording mix tapes don’t have to be over. This device looks and functions just like tape recorders from the pre-smartphone era. And with a USB port as well as a line-in jack and built-in mic, users can easily import their digital music collection onto retro cassette tapes.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Days of the Week Scrunchie Set; $12

Urban Outfitters

Millennials can be upset that a trend from their youth is old enough to be cool again, or they can embrace it. This scrunchie set is for anyone happy to see the return of the hair accessory. The soft knit ponytail holders come in a set of five—one for each day of the school (or work) week.

Buy it: Urban Outfitters

7. D&D Graphic T-shirt; $38-$48

80s Tees

The perfect gift for the Dungeon Master in your life, this graphic tee is modeled after the cover of the classic Dungeons & Dragons rule book. It’s available in sizes small through 3XL.

Buy it: 80s Tees

8. Chuck E. Cheese T-shirt; $36-$58

80s Tees

Few Millennials survived childhood without experiencing at least one birthday party at Chuck E. Cheese. This retro T-shirt sports the brand’s original name: Chuck E. Cheese’s Pizza Time Theatre. It may be the next-best gift for a Chuck E. Cheese fan behind a decommissioned animatronic.

Buy it: 80s Tees

9. The Nightmare Before Christmas Picnic Blanket Bag; $40

Shop Disney

Fans of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas will recognize the iconic scene on the front of this messenger bag. Unfold it and the bag becomes a blanket fit for a moonlit picnic among the pumpkins. The bottom side is waterproof and the top layer is made of soft fleece.

Buy it: Shop Disney

10. Toy Story Alien Socks; $15

Shop Disney

You don’t need to be skilled at the claw machine to take home a pair of these socks. Decorated with the aliens from Toy Story, they’re made from soft-knit fabric and are big enough to fit adult feet.

Buy it: Shop Disney

11. Goosebumps Board Game; $24

Amazon

Fans that read every book in R.L. Stine’s series growing up can now play the Goosebumps board game. In this game, based on the Goosebumps movie, players take on the role of their favorite monster from the series and race to the typewriter at the end of the trail of manuscripts.

Buy it: Amazon

12. Tamagotchi Mini; $19

Amazon

If you know someone who killed their Tamagotchi in the '90s, give them another chance to show off their digital pet-care skills. This Tamagotchi is a smaller, simplified version of the original game. It doubles as a keychain, so owners have no excuse to forget to feed their pet.

Buy it: Amazon

13. SNES Classic; $275

Amazon

The SNES Classic is much easier to find now than when it first came out, and it's still just as entertaining for retro video game fans. This mini console comes preloaded with 21 Nintendo games, including Super Mario Kart and Street Fighter II.

Buy it: Amazon

14. Planters Cheez Balls; $24

Amazon

Planters revived its Cheez Balls in 2018 after pulling them from shelves nearly a decade earlier. To Millennials unaware of that fact, this gift could be their dream come true. The throwback snack even comes in the classic canister fans remember.

Buy it: Amazon

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From Ear to Eternity: When Mike Tyson Bit Evander Holyfield

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) compete in their rematch in Las Vegas on June 28, 1997. The bout would make sports history.
Focus On Sport/Getty Images

As the 16,000 spectators began filing out of the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada, following a night of fights on June 28, 1997, MGM employee Mitch Libonati noticed something strange on the floor of the boxing ring. He later described it as being roughly the size of a fingernail, with the texture of a piece of hot dog or sausage.

It was no concession stand remnant. It was a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.

Wrapping the morsel of flesh in a latex glove, Libonati hurried backstage, where Holyfield was conferring with officials and doctors after his opponent, Mike Tyson, had been disqualified for biting him on the left ear. In all the commotion, Libonati wasn't allowed inside the room. But Michael Grant, one of Holyfield’s training partners, accepted the ear fragment on Holyfield’s behalf.

Libonati’s discovery was the climax to one of boxing’s most controversial and bizarre evenings, one in which "Iron" Mike Tyson—the most famous fighter of his era—meted out a savage reprimand for what he perceived was dirty fighting on the part of Holyfield. The ear-biting far exceeded the brutal underpinnings of boxing and added to Tyson's reputation as a frenzied combatant both in and out of the ring.

 

Mike Tyson’s collision with Evander Holyfield had started when the two were just teenagers. On the amateur circuit, they had sparred together—not quite knowing the heights each would achieve, but understanding the other would be a formidable obstacle if they were to ever meet as professionals.

Evander Holyfield (L) had success against Mike Tyson (R) early on.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Tyson was a prodigy, having won the heavyweight championship of the world in 1986 at the age of 19 and dominating the division up until an upset loss to James “Buster” Douglas in Tokyo, Japan, in 1990. Holyfield was the lighter fighter at cruiserweight (190 pounds), moving up to the heavyweight division in 1988 and gaining respect for his trilogy with Riddick Bowe.

Long before that fateful night in 1997, Tyson's personal life had started to overshadow his accomplishments inside the ring: An allegedly abusive marriage to actress Robin Givens darkened his image in the media and ended in a very public divorce after just one year. In 1992, a rape conviction sidelined the fighter for more than three years while he served out his prison sentence.

When Tyson returned to the ring, he rattled off a string of wins against fighters not quite at his level, including Peter McNeeley, Buster Mathis Jr., Frank Bruno, and Bruce Seldon. Holyfield had stepped away from competition in 1994, but as Tyson knocked off inferior opponents, talk of a bout with Holyfield intensified. Finally, the two met in Las Vegas on November 9, 1996, with Tyson a 17-1 favorite over the semi-retired Holyfield.

Holyfield would prove his doubters wrong. Through 11 rounds of action, he outmaneuvered and outclassed Tyson by negating his opponent's power with movement and volume. Holyfield also landed headbutts that were declared unintentional, but to Tyson seemed deliberate. Before the fight could see a 12th round, Holyfield knocked Tyson down and earned a technical knockout victory.

 

While it was an undoubtedly disappointing moment for Tyson, an upset in boxing virtually guarantees a lucrative rematch deal. Both men agreed to meet a second time, with Holyfield earning $35 million and Tyson getting $30 million. Tyson’s camp, however, insisted that the referee from the first bout, Mitch Halpern, not be booked for the second, because Tyson felt he failed to call the illegal headbutts. The Nevada State Athletic Commission didn’t want to be seen capitulating to Tyson’s demands, but Halpern stepped aside voluntarily. So referee Mills Lane took his place.

Evander Holyfield (L) and Mike Tyson (R) first met as amateurs.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

Before a huge crowd full of A-list celebrities like Sylvester Stallone and a then-record 1.99 million households that had purchased the event on pay-per-view, Tyson and Holyfield met for a second time at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on June 28, 1997. While Holyfield took the first round, Tyson appeared fit and adaptive, and came out blazing in round two. Then, just as Tyson had feared, Holyfield’s headbutt struck him again.

The clash of heads opened a cut over Tyson’s right eye, which threatened to obscure his vision as the fight went on. It also opened a reservoir of frustration in the fighter that would manifest in a spectacularly violent way.

Coming out for the third round, Tyson had forgotten his mouthpiece and had to go back and retrieve it—a foreshadowing of things to come. His aggression was working against Holyfield, but with 40 seconds left in the round, the two clinched up. Tyson moved his mouth so it was near Holyfield’s right ear. With his mouthpiece still in place, he clamped down on the ear, ripped the top off, and spat it along with his mouthguard onto the canvas.

Holyfield jumped up in the air in shock and pain. Referee Mills Lane was initially confused by what had happened until Holyfield’s trainers, Don Turner and Tommy Brooks, yelled out what Tyson had done. Lane called for a doctor then told Marc Ratner, the executive director of the athletic commission, that he was going to end the fight. Ratner asked if he was sure. Seeing Holyfield was bleeding from his ear but otherwise ready to fight, Lane waved the two men back into competition.

Incredibly, Tyson bit Holyfield a second time, this time on the left ear, before the round ended. This time, Lane was aware of what was happening and had seen enough. Before the start of the fourth round, he disqualified Tyson.

 

That was far from the end of it. Realizing he had lost the fight, Tyson grew incensed, shoving Holyfield from behind and pawing at the security guards who had stormed the ring in an attempt to restore order.

After the bout, Tyson didn’t appear to be overly contrite. He explained that he was frustrated at Holyfield headbutting him without being penalized, and said he had lost control.

An emotional Mike Tyson reacts to his disqualification loss to Evander Holyfield.Focus On Sport/Getty Images

“Listen,” Tyson said. “Holyfield is not the tough warrior everyone says he is. He got a nick on his ear and he quit.”

Tyson believed his retaliation was justified. “This is my career," he said. "I’ve got children to raise and this guy keeps butting me, trying to cut me and get me stopped on cuts. I’ve got to retaliate. What else could I do? He didn’t want to fight. I’m ready to fight right now. Regardless of what I did, he’s been butting me for two fights. I got one eye. He’s not impaired. He’s got ears. I’ve got to go home and my kids will be scared of me. Look at me, look at me, look at me!”

Two days later, Tyson issued a tempered apology in an effort to minimize the consequences, but it was too late. In addition to losing his boxing license in the state of Nevada, Tyson was fined 10 percent of his purse, or $3 million, which was thought to be the largest fine in sports at the time.

 

Tyson could never entirely shake the stigma of his actions. When a lucrative bout with Lennox Lewis was being planned in 2002, the fight ultimately ended up taking place in Memphis, Tennessee; Nevada refused to restore Tyson's license following a press conference brawl between the two men.

Tyson ultimately continued competing through 2005, when he lost his last bout to Kevin McBride. Holyfield retired in 2011. Earlier this year, the 54-year-old Tyson expressed a desire to return to the ring. The fighter once known as "The Baddest Man on the Planet" is scheduled to fight Roy Jones Jr. on November 28, 2020. Yet Holyfield, now 57 years old, remains a possible future opponent.

The two have occasionally interacted in public in interviews, with Tyson expressing remorse and Holyfield admitting he briefly thought about biting Tyson on his face right back. The pair even filmed a spot for Foot Locker in which Tyson “gave” Holyfield the missing piece of his ear.

In reality, Holyfield never did get his ear back. After Mitch Libonati handed it over to Michael Grant, the piece somehow fell out of the latex glove while being transported to the hospital.

Many fighters talk about leaving a little piece of themselves in the ring. It’s usually metaphorical. For Evander Holyfield, it was simply the truth.