Cafe 101: The 3rd Course

Sports Heaven's most exclusive restaurant is the Cafe 101. As the name suggests there are only 101 tables, each reserved for the greatest to don that number.

Imagine there’s a sports heaven;
It’s easy if you try.
Where sports’ greatest legends
Depart to when they die.

Imagine all the athletes, of past and present day.

Now imagine a Cafe;
It’s not that hard to do.
There’s only 101 tables;
It’s open to a select few.

Imagine all the athletes, hoping to get a seat.

You may say I’m a dreamer;
But I’m not the only one.
Deciding the greatest athletes by number;
Who get to enter the Cafe 101.

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As a sports fan, I love the idea of a paradise where all athletes are in their prime.  A place where we can watch Sandy Koufax and Roy Halladay pitch to Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  A place where Terry Bradshaw can throw the deep ball to Randy Moss and Jerry Rice.  Where Magic Johnson, Oscar Robertson, and Shaq can all play on the same court.  Where Pele and Lionel Messi can go head to head on the pitch.  So far, Sports Heaven’s most exclusive restaurant has seated 8 (Tables 7, 10, 27, 30, 53, 59, 80, & 88) and today we seat an additional 4.  So without further ado we dive into today’s 4.  Please click the corresponding links above to read previous Cafe 101 posts.

TABLE

AL OLIVER

Outfielder/First Baseman, Pittsburgh Pirates, Texas Rangers, Montreal Expos, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies, Los Angeles Dodgers, & Toronto Blue Jays (1968-1985)
1971 World Series Champion, 7x All-Star, 3x Silver Slugger Award Winner, 1982 NL Batting Title

With there being so few athletes who have worn the number 0 (let alone GREAT athletes), this was one of the easiest tables to snare at the Cafe 101.  Of course most people think of Agent Zero, Gilbert Arenas, himself when they see this number and while Arenas has had a solid career I had to take MLB journeyman Al Oliver.

Al Oliver had a great career.  He was the runner-up for the Rookie of the Year award, was a big part of the 1971 world champion Pittsburgh Pirates, and his 1982 batting title shows that he performed over a long period of time.   In 1980, as a member of the Texas Rangers, he set an MLB record with 21 total bases in a doubleheader.  Al Oliver ranks in the top 50 in several MLB categories including hits (2,743), games played (2,368), total bases (4,083), RBIs (1,326), & Extra base hits (825).  Additionally he had a career batting average of .303 and hit 219 home runs in his 18 year career.  There are many who believe he is deserving of induction into the MLB Hall of Fame.  I don’t know about all that but I do believe he is clearly the most deserving of Table #0.

RUNNER-UP: SHAWN MARION, Phoenix Suns, Miami Heat, Toronto Raptors, & Dallas Mavericks (1999-Present)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  Orlando Woolridge & Gilbert Arenas

TOO SOON TO TELL:  Russell Westbrook, Bismack Biyombo, Mike Bibby, & Enes Kanter

TABLE

MAGIC JOHNSON

Point Guard, Los Angeles Lakers (1979-1991, 1996)
5x NBA Champion, 1979 NCAA Champion, 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist, 3x NBA MVP, 12x NBA All-Star, 3x NBA Finals MVP, 9x All-NBA First Team, 2x NBA All-Star Game MVP, Basketball Hall of Fame  – 2002

There are many, many, many great athletes who have worn the #32 and I knew this number would be tough and spark a lot of debate; but this table has to go to Magic Johnson – in my opinion, the greatest point guard of all time.   You could even make an argument that he’s the greatest player of all time.  From his college career at Michigan State to his HIV-shortened NBA career with the Lakers, Magic Johnson was always the consummate professional and a winner at every point of his career.  His 11.2 assists per game average is still an NBA record and his rivalry with Larry Bird that started in college is the stuff of legend.  Some of the greatest athletes of all time have worn 32 and in my eyes, Magic was the greatest of the great.

RUNNER-UP: JIM BROWN, Cleveland Browns (1957 – 1965)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  Sandy Koufax, Bill Walton, Elston Howard, Shaquille O’Neal, Julius Erving, Karl Malone, Franco Harris, Marcus Allen, David Beckham, O.J. Simpson, Christian Laettner (College), Edgerrin James, Kevin McHale, & Jimmer Freddette (College)

TOO SOON TO TELL:  Blake Griffin, Maurice Jones-Drew, Josh Hamilton, & Toby Gerhart

TABLE

JERRY KRAMER

Guard/Kicker, Green Bay Packers (1958-1968)
2x Super Bowl Champion, 5x NFL Champion, 5x 1st Team All-Pro, 1x 2nd Team All-Pro, 3x Pro Bowler, 1960’s All-Decade Team, NFL 50th Anniversary Team

It is absolutely shocking to me that Jerry Kramer is not in the Hall of Fame.  In fact, he is the only member of the NFL’s 50th anniversary team not in the Hall of Fame.   When we’re talking about the #64, for me, it came down to two of the greatest guards in the history of the NFL.  It came down to Jerry Kramer and Randall McDaniel.  For me this was tough because it was about a Viking vs. a Packer and while Randall McDaniel is a Hall of Famer and widely regarded as the most versatile offensive lineman of all time, but I have to admit that Kramer is the better guard.   Jerry Kramer was an integral part of the famed “Packer Sweep” that helped lead the Pack to 5 NFL Championships.   His ability to get around the corner helped win the Packers the first two Super Bowls and is a big part of the reason that Jim Taylor is in the Hall of Fame.  His most notable achievement as a blocker is probably leading the way for Bart Starr to score the winning touchdown in the “Ice Bowl”.

Additionally he spent three years as a kicker for the Packers amassing 117 points.  In the 1962 NFL Title Game against the New York Giants, his three field goals and PAT were the difference in a 16-7 Packers victory.  Kramer has been snubbed by the Hall of Fame but he wasn’t about to get snubbed by me.  Table #64 belongs to him.

RUNNER-UP: RANDALL MCDANIEL, Minnesota Vikings/Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1988-2001)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  George Blanda, Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, & Y.A. Tittle

TOO SOON TO TELL: David Baas & Anthony Herrera

TABLE

SERGEI FEDOROV

Centre, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets,  Anaheim Ducks, Detroit Red Wings, CSKA Moscow, Dinamo Minsk, & Metallurg Magnitogorsk (1986 – Present)
3x Stanley Cup Winner, 3x President’s Trophy Winner, 2x Olympic Medalist, 3x Gold Medalist in World Championships,  6x NHL All-Star, NHL All-Rookie Team – 1991, Hart Memorial Trophy – 1994, 2x Frank J. Selke Trophy Winner, Kharlamov Trophy – 2003, Lester B. Pearson Award – 1994

The #91 debate really came down to some great defensive players in their respective sports.  On one hand we had Pistons & Bulls great Dennis Rodman who is one of the greatest defensive players the NBA has ever seen.  On the other we had Sergei Fedorov one of the best defenders and playoff performers to ever grace the ice.  In the end, I had to give the nod to Feds.  Fedorov is a proven winner who proved to be among the best in the world at every stage of his career.  His 1993-94 season is one of the best seasons anyone has ever put together.  He won the Hart, Selke, and Pearson Trophy all in one season.  That would be the equivalent of winning the MVP Award, Defensive Player of the Year Award, and being voted All-Pro unanimously all in one season in the NFL.  It’s absolutely unbelievable. In 1998 he won the Stanley Cup and the Olympic Silver Medal in the same year.

As great as Feds was during the NHL regular season, he was phenomenal during the playoffs.  He is considered by many the greatest playoff performer of all time.  He holds the record for most points in overtime (27).  He is ranked 13th in playoff points, 12th in playoff shorthanded goals, and 8th in playoff assists, and he was the 3rd player to have 4 consecutive 20+ point Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Yep, the Russian Rocket is more than worthy of Table #91.

RUNNER-UP: DENNIS RODMAN, Detroit Pistons, San Antonio Spurs, Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Lakers, & Dallas Mavericks (1986-2000)

ON THE WAITING LIST:  Kevin Greene

TOO SOON TO TELL: Tamba Hali, Magnus Paajarvi, John Taveres, Justin Tuck, Marc Savard, Cameron Wake,  & Ryan Kerrigan

Agree? Disagree? Tweet @can_of_corn with hashtag #Cafe101 to tell us your picks!

Click photo to enlarge the seating chart for Sports Heaven's most exclusive restaurant

Will your favorite athletes be able to get a table at the Cafe 101? Keep reading to find out!  If you have any questions, comments, or snide remarks please comment below or tweet them to @can_of_corn!

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The Legend of Tarzan & The Magnificent Seven

“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.

The two premier big men of the era - Joe Lapchick (left) of the Original Celtics facing off against Tarzan Cooper (right) of the Harlem Renaissance

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.

The Harlem Rens defined the term dynasty in the 1930's. From L to R: Clarence "Fats" Jenkins, Bill Yancy, John "Casey" Holt, "Pappy" Rick, Eyre "Bruiser" Saitch, Charles "Tarzan" Cooper, and "Wee Willie" Smith. Owner Robert Douglas in inset.

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.

Cooper spent the end of his career as a Player-Coach with the Washington Bears who he led to a perfect record and his 2nd World Championship.

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.

35 years ago this week, Tarzan Cooper found a permanent home in Springfield, MA

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!

WORKS CITED:

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.