The Depression Years

In 1931, few players could make a living playing basketball. The American League had folded and the remaining leagues were limited largely to weekend games. Exhibition  games provided some income, but to earn a living barnstorming was the only answer and it returned to popularity.  Even though Lapchick’s knees ached and Dehnert’s belly had become Ruthian, the Original Celtics regrouped and went out on the road. The Celtics remained a big gate attraction even though they were no longer the dominating team of a half-dozen years earlier. Two younger teams, the Philadelphia Sphas and the New York Rens, had replaced the Celtics at the top of the basketball world.

The Philadelphia Sphas came into existence in 1918, organized by three recent graduates of South Philadelphia High School Eddie Gottlieb, Harry Passon and Hughie Black.  The team’s first sponsor was the Young Men’s Hebrew Association, but after three seasons they accepted the sponsorship of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, a social club.  The team continued to be known by the Sphas acronym long after sponsorship was withdrawn.  The Sphas prospered in the early 20’s playing about eighty games a season.  They did not tour as much as many of the famous teams of the era because of the depth of competition in the Philadelphia area.  Their national reputation grew during the 1925-26 season when they won five of six games from American League opponents and then won back-to-back exhibition series from the Original Celtics and the New York Rens. In the late twenties, Gottlieb took over sole control of the team. He supplemented the Sphas by signing college-trained stars such as Cy Kaselman, Harry Litwack and Gil Fitch of Temple, Red Wolfe from St.John’s (NY). The new Sphas were a dominate force in professional basketball in the east for seventeen years. They won three Eastern League titles in four years, and seven American league titles in thirteen seasons.

Bob Douglas organized the all-black New York Rens in 1922.  The first season was a modest success with the team earning a 15-8 record.  The team’s nickname was a derivative of the site of most of their games the first year, the Renaissance Casino in Harlem. With stars such as Pappy Ricks, Eyre Saitch and speedster Fats Jenkins added to the roster the following year, the Rens began to make a name for themselves as they barnstormed to a 67-12 record.  By the 1927-28 season the Rens had upped their record to 112-8.  In 1928-29, Tarzan Cooper, Bill Yancey and Johnny Holt were added to the roster.  In 1929-30, the Rens won 125 games and lost only 10 times in a season when Douglas took the club into the Midwest for the first time. The pace was backbreaking with games scheduled every night and twice on Sunday.  The last major addition to the team was 6’5″ Wee Willie Smith in 1932.  From 1932 through 1936, the Rens won 473 and lost only 49 games.

Like the original Celtics of the twenties, the key to the success of the Rens was their close-knit, precision style of play perfected on long barnstorming trips.  From 1932 through 1936, there was not a single roster change.  The same seven players, Jenkins, Yancey, Holt, Ricks, Eyre, Cooper and Smith won over ninety-percent of the 500 games played during the four years.  The 1933-34 season, in which the Rens won 134 games and lost only 7 times, was their greatest season.  They won 88 games in a row in one stretch, until the Original Celtics terminated the streak.  The Rens won the inaugural World Professional Tournament in Chicago in 1939, and also won the Cleveland Pro Tournament four consecutive years, the Rochester Pro Tournament twice and the New York State Pro Tournament twice.

Douglas imbued his team with a sense of dignity and pride.  Rivalries with the Original Celtics and Philadelphia Sphas, although hotly contested on the floor, were marked by mutual respect and admiration. Joe Lapchick, of the Celtics, said that Tarzan Cooper was unquestionably the best center he faced during his playing career.  The Rens won 2,318 games before Douglas disbanded the team in the late forties.

If any single individual deserved credit for keeping the professional game alive during the darkest years of the Depression it was John O’Brien, the longtime president of the American Basketball League. O’Brien played the game as youngster in Brooklyn, performing in high school, YMCA and even briefly as a professional, but it was apparent early on that his greatest contributions to the game would not be as a player, but as an referee and administrator.  O’Brien’s early training came in Catholic Amateur leagues in Brooklyn where he served as a referee and league officer.  He became widely respected as an official of high school, college and professional games. For many seasons he officiated all the home games of New York Rens.  In 1914, at age 26, O’Brien was a key figure in organizing the Interstate Basketball League and later served as its president.  He served in the same capacity for is the Metropolitan League from 1922 until 1928.

O’Brien rose to become important figure in the New York business community.  In one of his first jobs, as secretary to Mayor Howland of New York, O’Brien made many important contacts that served him well in later years.  He became an executive of a major engineering company and later was vice-president of a railway company.  In 1928, O’Brien took over as president of the floundering American Basketball League and kept it alive for three years before it folded in 1931.  He reorganized the league on a lesser scale in 1933 and remained as president for next twenty years.  O’Brien single handedly ran the league from his Wall Street offices.  He combined an excellent knowledge of the game, with superb administrative skills and a keen instinct for survival to keep the American League afloat during the Depression.  His style was dictatorial, but he was a dictator who presided over his domain with wit, urbanity and charm.

As the decade proceeded, it became apparent that professional basketball would survive the ravages of the Depression.  O’Brien’s American League was functioning, and a new Midwest-based major league, after an uncertain start, was making a go of it.  In late March of 1939, the sport was given an additional boast by the inaugural World Professional Basketball Tournament staged in Chicago.  The Chicago tournament was actually one of many post-season tournaments that gained popularity in the late thirties and early forties, but the Chicago tournament was by far the most prestigious and the only one that was actually recognized as the professional championship for a ten-year period.