“It is because of Tarz[an Cooper], there was a [Elgin] Baylor, a Wilt [Chamberlain], a Doctor J, and all the others still to come.” ~ Howie Evans, New Amsterdam News, 1977
It’s Hall of Fame week here in Springfield, Massachusetts. The autograph seekers are in full force, and the Marriott across the street from where I work has already rolled out the red carpet for the likes of Dennis Rodman and Chris Mullins. In honor of Hall of Fame Week I found it fitting to provide a story about one of basketball’s all-time greats who 35 years ago this week was enshrined here in Springfield, who you have probably never heard of.
He lived in a time when great centers like Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and Kareem Abdul-Jabar dominated the realm of professional basketball. He saw Abdul-Jabar’s Skyhook shot and knew of Chamberlain’s 100 point game against the New York Knicks. Yet anytime Joe Lapchick, basketball’s “original big man” who spent nearly 50 years as a player and coach, was asked who was the greatest center of all, his answer was always the same: “Tarzan Cooper was the greatest center that ever played.”
The great player known as Tarzan Cooper was born Charles Theodore Cooper in Newark, Delaware on August 30, 1907. Although not much is known about his childhood, it is known that his parents, Theodore and Evelyn Cooper, moved the family to Philadelphia while Charles was still a young boy. Charles Cooper grew up in a time when baseball was at the pinnacle of American sports culture, but coincidentally, a new phenomenon was sweeping the nation. James Naismith had developed the game of basketball as an indoor winter sport intended to help athletes maintain their conditioning throughout the year but basketball was not only being played indoors, it was being played in the streets of many cities. And like many youth, the street was where young Cooper learned the game.
As Cooper grew older and developed, it became clear that he not only possessed the skills, but the physicality, that made him a valuable asset to any basketball team. He was a prominent member of the Central High School Basketball team in Philadelphia for the one year he played there. Cooper played basketball in its infancy and the game was much different than it is today. The game was often played in ballrooms, casinos, and church basements, which usually were not heated. The floors were heavily waxed and the court was often enclosed with nets. There was very little uniformity among the balls that were played with and the goals that were used. The game was much more physical and violent. One of the biggest differences was that there was a jump ball after every single score. Howie Evans of the New York Amsterdam News wrote in 1977 that, Tarzan’s “hands were like giant shovels, and held more than their share of his 215 pounds.” The style and the rough manner in which the sport was played made a good center very valuable and a large center like Cooper a very rare commodity.
In 1925, at the age of 18, he joined the Philadelphia Panther Pros and began his professional basketball career. The following year, he became a star as a member of the all-black Philadelphia Colored Giants. At 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, he really was a Philadelphia “giant.” Charles Cooper stood as an imposing force for anyone he matched up against.3 His immense size and dominant play earned him the nickname “Tarzan.” Tarzan played for the Giants from 1926 to 1929 until Robert Douglas, owner of the Harlem Renaissance, saw Tarzan play and knew he had to make Tarzan the heart of his offense.
For nearly all of the first half of the 20th century, sport – much like society – was segregated. Basketball was no different. Teams like the Philadelphia Giants and New York Renaissance consisted of all black players and predominantly played against other all-black teams while other teams like the Original Celtics and the Buffalo Germans were more recognized and endeared by white basketball fans. When Robert Douglas saw Cooper play, Douglas knew that Cooper was a very special player with unmatchable talent. The next day, Cooper signed with the “Rens” and began his 11-year career with that great team. Douglas also brought in John “Casey” Holt and Bill Yancy. In teaming Cooper, Holt, and Yancy up with four other black greats of the time (Clarence “Fats” Jenkins, James “Pappy” Ricks, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, and William “Wee Willie” Smith) the “Magnificent Seven,” as many called the Renaissance team of the 1930s, was born. In Cooper’s first year with the Rens, they earned an impressive 120-20 record (an .857 winning percentage).
During the 1920s and 1930s, due to the need to play in front of large crowds during the Great Depression, the Renaissance was primarily a barnstorming team that traveled throughout the Northeastern, Midwestern, and Southern United States. They played in large cities like Kansas City, Chicago, New York, and Indianapolis, and in several smaller ones like Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Evansville, Indiana, and Fort Wayne, Indiana. Many of the teams they played against were all-white and many of the crowds they played in front of were predominantly white and very hostile. While the teams themselves were segregated, it was not rare for all-black teams to play all-white teams or Jewish teams. Blacks may have been allowed to play on the same court as all-white and Jewish teams, but their experience was hardly the same.
Most teams had the luxury of staying in hotels in the cities where they were competing; finding a good meal at a restaurant after a hard-played game; or gassing up as they drove through the night to a double-header the next day. These simple luxuries were hardly afforded to the Rens. Because of their color, Cooper and the Rens often had to stay in a larger city where they could get a room even if they were not playing in that city. Then, in some cases, the team had drive up to 400 miles from the hotel where they were staying to where they were playing and then drive back to that same hotel after the game. This was not rare because there were not any hotels close to smaller cities especially, that were willing to rent out rooms to a group of black men. Things were so bad for the Rens, that in the entire state of Illinois (where they played several games) there was only one hotel that was willing to accommodate them. Many times the Rens drove through the night, sleeping in the bus that Douglas had bought for them. Cooper recalled in an interview with Sports Illustrated, “It seems like I spent my whole life on the road…. When I look back on my playing days, all I see is that old bus. It was a rough ride in those days. Blacks couldn’t stay in most hotels, and sometimes we had to drive 400 miles to find a hotel.” In addition, promoters would often develop ways to cheat the Rens (and other all-black teams) out of the paychecks that they were promised. Off the court, Cooper and his teammates were made to feel like they were somehow inferior. But on the court, there was no denying the fact that the Magnificent Seven were simply superior. Cooper observed that, “We beat everybody; the Original Celtics, the Buffalo Germans, everybody. We were the best.”
The Rens were extremely dominant and became widely known for the speed and the style in which they played the game. They had the ability to work the ball quickly down the court because of their passing game which was a series of quick passes and fast breaks. Very rarely did the Rens actually dribble the ball down the court, and for that matter, the Rens would play entire games where the ball itself barely touched the court. The team was fast and large and had Tarzan Cooper to snatch up every jump ball. Their defense may have been even better than their offense. What made the team special though was their stamina. Opposing teams often exhausted their timeouts because the Rens would wear them out and continue to play the game without stopping the clock. This made it very hard for any team, white or black, to match up with the Renaissance.
It’s important to note the Renaissance and other all-black teams were not only playing against other teams, but they had to fight the crowds and biased officiating as well. In spite of these challenges, the Rens continued to win. In many cases, the Rens were so good that they had to carry the home team and keep the score close just to keep the crowds entertained. Bobby Douglas told Sports Illustrated in 1979, “We were smart enough to keep the score down and make the people think they were seeing a real game. They didn’t know we were carrying the home team; it was good business to let the locals think they could beat us the next time around.” They often defeated members of the National Basketball League (NBL) and premier white teams like the Original Celtics, who many still consider the best team of the Depression era.
During the 1932-33 season, the Renaissance posted a record of 127-7 (.948) in which they defeated the Original Celtics in seven out of eight meetings and had an 88-game win streak – a record that has never since been matched in professional basketball. The most impressive thing about this streak was that all 88 of these consecutive wins came on the road.
During his time with the Rens, Tarzan Cooper led them to victory after victory and won championship after championship. Unfortunately, for most of Cooper’s career, the best the Rens could do was “Colored World Champions” as many did not recognize the dominance that black teams such as the Rens had displayed against white teams. (In 1963, the Harlem Renaissance became one of only three teams, along with the Original Celtics and Buffalo Germans, to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame). Hall of Fame Coach John Wooden, who matched up against both the Rens and Celtics as a player, observed that, “The Rens were definitely better [than the Original Celtics]. They were as good a team as you would find … as good as anyone.”
Many did not recognize Cooper’s talents or abilities either. In spite of the fact that he could single-handedly control the tempo of a game and outmatched any center he played against, his exploits on the court were rarely recognized by fans and the media. Few outsiders understood that Tarzan Cooper simply imposed his will on the court. His teammates and opponents of the time though recognized how special Tarzan really was. Cooper’s teammate Eddie Younger routinely said that, “Everybody knows Tarzan Cooper was the greatest of his day. He scored when necessary but mostly he played ferocious defense and swept the backboards.”
As a member of the Rens, Tarzan Cooper had a personal record of 1303-203 (.865) during his 11-year stint with the team. One hundred and twelve of those wins came for Cooper during the 1938-39 season which was a very special one for the Magnificent Seven. That year, the Harlem Renaissance became the first ever winners of the World Professional Championship defeating the Harlem Globetrotters, New York Yankees basketball team, and the NBL Champion Oshkosh All-Stars. The Renaissance were finally the world champions that they knew they were. In spite of all that, many still did not recognize the accomplishments of an all-black team from Harlem.
As the ’30s came to an end, a new era began in professional basketball. When the United States became involved in World War II, travel restrictions and gas rations brought an end to the era of the barnstorming team and more organized professional basketball leagues began to emerge. As new leagues emerged, it became clear that an all-black team like the Rens was never going to be accepted into the American Basketball League (ABL) or any other major professional league for that matter, much to the disappointment of Robert Douglas, the Magnificent Seven, and their fans. Original Celtics Center and New York Knicks Head Coach Joe Lapchick lobbied strongly for the inclusion of the Rens and was quoted as saying, “I may lose my job for saying this, but I’d play against the Rens any goddamn day. To me they’re the best.”
At the end of the 1940s, the Harlem Renaissance were finally accepted into the ABL, but by then, the Magnificent Seven had long disbanded. Many members of premier all-white teams such as the Original Celtics and the Buffalo Germans found work as coaches and/or players in the newly founded leagues but this was hardly the case for the Rens. Even after winning a World Professional Title and defeating the Original Celtics and Oshkosh All-Stars time and time again, many refused to recognize the talent and ability of the Harlem Renaissance.
During his last few years with the Rens, Tarzan would spend the weekends driving from New York to Washington D.C. to play with the Washington Bears. He left the Rens in 1940. In 1943, he served as a player-coach for the Washington Bears. That year, the Bears went 66-0 and defeated the Daytona Bombers and Oshkosh All-Stars. Shortly after winning his second World Professional Title, Tarzan left the game of basketball behind, due to an injury to his Achilles tendon, and went back to Philadelphia to finish his days as a blue collar worker. Cooper would later say that, “Progress was what finally killed the Rens. Jobs were opening up for blacks, and we had to think of our futures. The year after we won the World Championship, I retired and took a job painting houses for $50 a week, year round.”
Such was the fate of Tarzan and many of his teammates. They had devoted their lives to basketball which had left little time for education or to learn a trade. Many would say that this was the reason that members of the Rens and other all-black teams were left to find blue collar jobs. However, many of the white players who the Rens had outplayed during the ’30s were just as uneducated and unskilled, but they were not left to the same fate as the black players. While many white greats of the time like Nat Holman, Joe Lapchick, and Dutch Denhert went on to have successful coaching careers, the game that Tarzan so fondly remembered had forgotten him and many of his black teammates.
In the 1993 FOX Film The Sandlot, “Babe” Ruth (portrayed by Art LaFleur) tells the main character Smalls that, “There are heroes and there are legends. Heroes get remembered but legends never die.” The tragedy of Tarzan and the Magnificent Seven is that somewhere in, what Bruce Newman referred to as, “the shuffle of history,”heroes were forgotten and legends were laid to rest. Tarzan Cooper spent nearly 20 years of his life excelling in and playing basketball. He won championships and beat the “best teams.” He did it all on the road and in front of hostile and violent crowds. He jumped, he scored, and he rebounded. He helped to set records that have never been broken. For almost two decades Tarzan Cooper gave everything he had and then some, to a game that he loved dearly; but basketball was not nearly as kind to him.
Cooper spent the last 37 years of his life painting houses, working in shipyards and as a bartender. He lived in a run-down house not far from where he grew up. He volunteered as a basketball coach at the Philadelphia YMCA and for nearly 35 years, Cooper felt as if his legacy and contributions had been forgotten. As he grew older, he had a number of health issues. He became arthritic and developed high blood pressure. Cooper continued to work hard and to make a living for himself as he had done his whole life. He coached, he painted, he tended bar, and while others forgot, he always remembered fondly his days as a player. Cooper mentioned in a 1979 interview with Sports Illustrated that, “Sometimes I’d find myself leaning against that ladder, missing those days when we were flying high. But there was always the road, and I surely never did miss that. Still, it wasn’t all that bad. Why, I suppose if I could just run like young fellows out there now, I’d hop right back on that bus and head for the open road.” Cooper loved the game and in his retirement he enjoyed watching, and when he could, going to professional games.
In 1976 while tending bar, Tarzan Cooper finally got the call. He was going to be inducted in Basketball’s Hall of Fame and his marvelous career and role in developing the game were finally going to be recognized. Thanks primarily to the efforts of former teammate Eddie Younger, Tarzan Cooper became the third black man ever inducted into Basketball’s Hall of Fame in May of 1977. Hundreds of Cooper’s fans, including Rens owner and Coach Robert Douglas, made the journey to Springfield, Massachusetts to finally see Tarzan Cooper where he belonged – recognized as an equal to the other great players of his day.
In December of 1980, Tarzan Cooper passed away in the same run-down house in south Philadelphia he had lived in since leaving basketball. He had worked dead-end low paying jobs for the last half of his life. With no wife or children, Tarzan Cooper’s body lay for days before it was discovered. A man who was a pioneer in the game of basketball, a Hall of Famer, the “greatest center that ever played,” was dead for days before anyone even noticed. This is the tragedy of Tarzan Cooper and the Magnificent Seven. On the court they were superior, but off it were treated as inferior. They wrote the pages of basketball history, but have since been lost in its shuffle. Though forgotten, these men were heroes that must be remembered. Though laid to rest, Tarzan Cooper was a legend whose story should never be allowed to die.
Questions? Comments? Snide Remarks? Let me hear ‘em!
1 Richard Lapchick, “Smashing Barriers”, Madison Books, 2001.
2 Susan J. Rayl, “Tarzan Cooper”, The African American National Biography, January 1, 2008
3 “Charles T. Cooper”, Basketball Hall of Fame, Accessed December 20, 2009, http://www.hoophall.com/hall-of-famers/tag/charles-t-cooper.
4 Bruce Newman, “The N.y. Rens Traveled a Long Hard Road to Basketball’s Hall of Fame”, Sports Illustrated, October 22, 1979.
5 John Hareas, “Remembering the Rens”, The NBA Encyclopedia, Accessed December 20, 2009, http://www.nba.com/history/encyclopedia_rens_001214.html.
6 Craig This, “The Dayton Rens: The Jackie Robinsons of Professional Basketball”, Accessed December 20, 2009, http://www.daytontriangles.com/9rens.html.
7 “Whatever Happened to Tarzan Cooper?”, Ebony, October, 1975.