Was It Only a Dream? : The Story of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh

In honor of Black History Month, we will be releasing a story every week about a black athlete or team whose story has rarely been told.  In order to appreciate the array of sports we have today, I feel that it’s important to understand where they have come from and to sing the praises of those contributors whose stories have mostly been forgotten. 

“With his head hung and a towel draped over his head, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh sat on the sidelines in College Park, Maryland, humiliated. He suffered the pain of hatred and bigotry as he just sat there; helplessly; watching his team’s hopes of an undefeated season grow fainter with every snap of the ball. Syracuse was a much better team than Maryland but Sidat-Singh, their star halfback, could not go out on the field and lead the Orangemen to victory as he had all season. After all, he was black, and at the University of Maryland blacks were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate sports.”

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“Did you see that thing?
That’s Wilmeth Sidat-Singh!
The Syracuse Walking Dream!
Oh, he was amazing!”

  ~ Attributed to Grantland Rice1

PHOTO: RL Young, 2005

Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was born in Washington, D.C in 1918 as Wilmeth Webb, the son of Elias and Pauline Webb.   When Wilmeth was seven, Elias Webb died of a stroke and his mother then married Samuel Sidat-Singh, a doctor from the West Indies.  Wilmeth adopted his stepfather’s surname and the family moved to New York City.2   Wilmeth Sidat-Singh grew up in the Big Apple with an incredible love for sports.  He learned how to play basketball, football, baseball, and tennis on the sandlots of Harlem near the place Dr. Sidat-Singh practiced medicine.  Young Wilmeth spent hours discovering how to throw a football and shoot a basketball along childhood friends John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch, and Jazz legend Duke Ellington’s son, Mercer.  Wilmeth quickly grew to be an extraordinary athlete.  Isaacs recalled that he once saw Sidat-Singh throw a football “60 yards, flat-footed” and that on the basketball court he was a fast, powerful, and dynamic player.   Sidat-Singh was a rare talent and Isaacs was not the only one who noticed.3

As he grew and went on to attend a DeWitt High School in New York, Sidat-Singh became a two-sport standout in football and basketball.  Whenever Wilmeth had a ball in his hands, it seemed that he was capable of anything.   John Isaacs once explained that, “anything he [Wilmeth Sidat-Singh] put his mind to, he would do it.”  Sidat-Singh became renowned for his explosiveness on the basketball court when he led DeWitt High School to a title in 1934.  In 1935, Sidat-Singh made the all-city team3 and led the Govs to a second consecutive preparatory championship.1 After his senior year; Wilmeth was awarded a basketball scholarship to Syracuse University.   Though everyone in his hometowns of Washington, D.C. and Harlem, New York knew he was black, people began referring to him as a Hindu.3

Nobody took much notice of Sidat-Singh his freshman year at Syracuse because in the 1930’s, freshmen were athletically ineligible.  The following year when Sidat-Singh was able to play for the basketball team, he picked up right where he left off at DeWitt.  The athletic superiority of the player wearing number 19 was immediately noticeable1 and papers began writing about Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, the “Manhattan Hindu”.2 Sidat-Singh facilitated the offense and had a great ability to lead his team on the floor and control the pace of the game.  For all three seasons that he was at Syracuse, number 19 led his team in scoring and brought Syracuse basketball to prominence.  They had three straight winning seasons with Wilmeth at the helm.  His senior year at Syracuse the “Manhattan Hindu” led his team to a 14-0 record and an unofficial national title.3

Though he had no Hindu descent and was born and raised in the U.S., the African American Wilmeth Sidat-Singh became largely known as the nation's premier Hindu athlete. Photo Courtesy of Jack Rimer.

Although Sidat-Singh was a great basketball player, he was not taken seriously as an athlete.  He was viewed as more of a novelty than anything.  Even though he was Syracuse’s greatest star he was demeaned because of his race and forced to live off-campus in the poorest parts of the college town.  In the media, the press continued to have misconceptions about his race as they deemed Wilmeth the nation’s only “Hindu Basketeer”.  They did not recognize his unmatchable talent on the court, only his mistaken racial association.  Sidat-Singh had never claimed to Hindu and had even tried to explain at one point that he had “never been to India” but regardless, the press continued him a “full blooded Hindu” and that was what made him newsworthy, not his athletic talent.1 Syracuse tried to perpetuate the misnomer by asking Wilmeth to wear turbans and traditional Indian garments but Wilmeth refused.4 If all Sidat-Singh had accomplished was an exceptional basketball career, the only mention of his name may have been the continued cases of mistaken racial identity.  However, Syracuse assistant football coach Russell Simmons, Sr. saw something in Sidat-Singh in 1936 that was going to make Wilmeth a household name.5

As previously mentioned, Wilmeth had been a multiple sport standout throughout his youth and high school career.  Though he was brought to Syracuse on a basketball scholarship, Sidat-Singh participated in a number of intramural sports, football among them.   During the fall of 1936, Coach Simmons decided to go watch a touch football game between two of the Syracuse dormitories and became intrigued with the young man who was calling the plays for one of the team.5 He was only about six feet tall and 190 pounds3 but he had a vibrant playing style, was quick on his feet, and every pass of his was on target.  As the game progressed, Simmons figured out that the young man calling the signals was the school’s basketball star Wilmeth Sidat-Singh.  Coach Simmons recalled that he immediately halted game play and went down on the field to Wilmeth and said, “Singh, you don’t belong here.  You belong down on that other field with the varsity.”  Sidat-Singh had always enjoyed the game of football and after his sophomore year, despite his basketball coach’s worries; he took Simmons up on his offer and decided to become a two-sport athlete at Syracuse.5

Wilmeth quickly excelled on the football field and showed that he was just as talented on the gridiron as he was on the hardwood.  The arm that Simmons had admired and the speed that made him a basketball phenom made Sidat-Singh a perfect fit for Syracuse’s single-wing offense.  Wilmeth played the halfback position which was a hybrid position that demanded the swiftness of a running back and the throwing ability of a quarterback.1 Throughout his collegiate football career he exhibited dominance over every team he faced.  In any athletic endeavor he pursued, Sidat-Singh seemed invulnerable and his abilities were unparalleled.  On the basketball court, he established supremacy with his quick feet and ability to score quickly.  On the field, his passes were on target and he was able to get by any line that he matched up against.  That is, until t Sidat-Singh tried to run past a line called the Mason-Dixon.1

In the week leading up to the Syracuse game, Sam Lacy from The Washington Tribune ran the story, “NEGRO TO PLAY U. OF MARYLAND, THEY CALL HIM A HINDU”.  The article explained how Sidat-Singh had been born Wilmeth Webb and how his mother, Pauline, had remarried.  At the time many schools in the South, including the University of Maryland, had a strict segregationist policy that they did not play against black teams or athletes in any sport.   Days earlier this same exclusion had not applied to an alleged Indian, but now was being applied to a black star.  Maryland refused to let Sidat-Singh play on their field and Syracuse conceded to their demands.2

When the day of the game arrived, Sidat-Singh had traveled to Maryland with the team but the Orangemen would take the field without their star player.  With his head hung and a towel draped over his head, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh sat on the sidelines in College Park, Maryland, humiliated.  He suffered the pain of hatred and bigotry as he just sat there; helpless, watching his team’s hopes of an undefeated season grow fainter with every snap of the ball.  Syracuse was a much better team than Maryland but Sidat-Singh, their star halfback, could not go out on the field and lead the Orangemen to victory as he had all season.  After all, he was black, and at the University of Maryland blacks were not allowed to compete in intercollegiate sports.1

“Seared in the flames of withering injustice”; 10 miles away and more than 30 years later that is how Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech would phrase

PHOTO: Courtesy of SU Athletics

the sting that Sidat-Singh felt.Syracuse running back Marty Glickman looked on in disgust, because a year prior, he had felt it too.  Glickman had been invited to the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin as a member of the 4 x 100 relay team.  Right before the race, he and teammate Sam Stoller were taken off the team and replaced by Ralph Metcalfe and Jesse Owens.   Glickman and Stoller were both Jewish and the relay team they were a part of was a favorite to win the gold medal that year (which it eventually did, setting a world record that would stand for 20 years).  It was believed by many that United States Olympic Committee had replaced Glickman and Stoller at the request of Adolf Hitler who did not want his athletes to suffer the embarrassment of losing to a couple of Jews.  Glickman had been denied the greatest honor an athlete can know because of his race.7 He had been seared in the flames of intolerance.  Now, just fourteen months later, Marty Glickman stood yards away from his teammate and friend Wilmeth Sidat-Singh as the inferno of prejudice continued to smolder.3

Glickman had considered whether or not to take a stand and sit out the game as well but was afraid of being depicted as a “trouble making Jew”.  The decision to play against Maryland was one that he regretted all his life.3 The Terrapins defeated Syracuse 13-02 and their victory was credited to being better able to handle the field conditions but it was clear that Sidat-Singh was the difference. Following that game, Sidat-Singh returned to the line-up and became the nation’s best two sport athlete.  In his senior year, he would defeat the legendary Sid Luckman’s Columbia squad 13-12.  He was so famous by then that Maryland and Duke both lifted their racial exclusions for the Syracuse game.  He defeated Maryland at Syracuse 53-01.  His greatest triumph came when he scored a major upset against the Rose Bowl bound Cornell Big Red by throwing six passes for 150 yards and three touchdowns in the game’s final six minutes to lead the Orangemen to a 19-17 comeback victory.  This performance prompted writer Grantland Rice to jot down the lasting words, “Did you see that thing? That’s Wilmeth Sidat-Singh! The Syracuse Walking Dream! Oh he was amazing!”8   Sidat-Singh was amazing as Rice had written but he would never escape the discrimination of college sport as his senior year he was forced to sit out of a basketball game against the U.S. Naval Academy due to the color of his skin.4

The Syracuse Walking Dream was amazing and one of the best athletes of his era. Upon graduating with a degree in zoology, Sidat-Singh began looking for opportunities to play sports professionally.  It was well-known that the National Football League (NFL) had never allowed blacks among their ranks.  As a result, Wilmeth decided to return to basketball and play the game that had brought him to collegiate athletics in the first place.1

He immediately signed with the Syracuse Reds and instantly became a star.  In December of 1939, Sidat-Singh and the Reds defeated the Original Celtics 40 – 37.  Sidat-Singh led the scoring with 14 points.  Wilmeth only spent one season with the Syracuse Reds before he left to join childhood friends John Isaacs and Eyre Saitch as members of the Harlem Renaissance.9 He had moved back to Washington, D.C. after graduating from Syracuse in 1939 to live with his longtime girlfriend Marjorie Webb (no relation) and regularly commuted to New York to play with the Rens.  By the time that the “Syracuse Walking Dream” joined the Rens, they were no longer what they once were.  The team had grown older.   Clarence “Fats” Jenkins and Charles “Tarzan” Cooper were gearing up to retire.  Coach and owner Bob Douglas planned to build his team around younger stars such as Isaacs, Saitch, William “Dolly” King, and Sidat-Singh.  Douglas hoped to make Sidat-Singh the focal point of his offense.10

As the 1940’s arrived, the Harlem Renaissance ran into fiscal concerns and broadcaster Hal Jackson pursued Sidat-Singh for his up-start Washington Bruins basketball team.   Jackson was able to recruit the hometown hero and made him the first major signing of his new team.   Jackson was excited to have his first big star but Bob Douglas insisted that Sidat-Singh was still under contract with the Renaissance.   Sidat-Singh opted to pursue every possible athletic opportunity that he could while he waited for the expiration of his contract.  He played semi-pro football with the U Street Lions, won a Colored City Championship with the Treasury Department fast-pitch softball team, and even played singles tennis.1

By the time that Wilmeth was contractually eligible to play with the Bears it was 1941 and Jackson had assembled a cast of collegiate all-stars, former Globetrotters, and former Rens to complement Sidat-Singh.  Jackson had lured Tarzan Cooper out of retirement to act as a player-coach for the newly named Washington Lichtman Bears (after team sponsor Abe Lichtman).   In the season opener, Sidat-Singh led the Bears with an unheard of 18 points (at a time when an average score for a winning team was around 30) as the Bears easily defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers.  He served as the center of the Bear’s offense that entire season as the team played won several games before packed houses.1 When he was not running down the hardwood; Sidat-Singh walked the beat as a member of the Washington, D.C. Police Department.3

The following season, several of Sidat-Singh’s former teammates from the Rens joined Wilmeth in Washington John “Wonder Boy” Isaacs, William “Dolly” King, and Eyre “Bruiser” Saitch all drove down from New York on the weekends to play for the Bears.  That season Sidat-Singh averaged 20 points a game and in a game against the Baltimore Mets, he scored, a record at the time, 28 points in the same state where years earlier he had not been allowed to play football.1 The Washington Bears were an elite basketball team during the 1942-43 season.  They finished the season 66-0 and went on to beat the Oshkosh All-Stars in the World Championship Tournament in Chicago.  Wilmeth Sidat-Singh was not at Chicago Stadium to share in his team’s glory.   In August of 1942 (mid-season), Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, feeling an incredible sense of duty to country, had decided to join the United States Air Force.10

Sidat-Singh left sports behind to defend a country whose ideals and freedoms were not available to him. PHOTO: "Washington City Paper", 2008

Before the 1940’s, it was extremely rare for blacks to fly airplanes – especially for the U.S. military.  Nonetheless, in 1942, the American commitment in Europe and Asia had escalated and the U.S. Air Force wanted any pilot they could find.  Just like American society, the military was segregated.  Wilmeth was designated for assignment with the all-black 332nd Fighter Group.3   Today, many know the Fighting 332nd as the Tuskegee Airmen.  In May of 1943, Sidat-Singh graduated from flight school and was ready to serve his country.1

Not long after his graduation, the news broke that the “Syracuse Walking Dream” had gone missing during a training exercise.1 On May 9, 1943, Sidat-Singh’s P-40 plane failed while he was flying a routine mission over Lake Huron.    His flight trainer, C.I. Williams saw the whole thing happen.  He claimed that Sidat-Singh did not deploy his parachute in the free fall and had drowned with his plane in the lake.Many refused to believe that Wilmeth was dead.  Among those convinced he was still alive was John Isaacs who remarked, “If you saw him swim … you’d understand.”1 Six weeks after the crash, divers found the body of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh wrapped up in his parachute and stuck to his plane.3At the young age of 25, a great competitor and a greater person had been lost.  He was an athlete who had unmatched talent and a person who had unparalleled resolve.  The Syracuse Walking Dream was almost too good to be true.  It was as if he could do anything that he put his mind to.  That is unless, he put his mind to eating at a white lunch counter, sitting in the front of a bus, playing football in the state of Maryland, or being treated as an equal.

Wilmeth Sidat-Singh died for a nation that was founded on the belief that “all men are created equal” but had never lived up to that creed.  The Syracuse Walking Dream had left his own endeavors behind because he believed in a concept that did not seem to believe in him.  He chose to stop playing the games he loved and excelled at to fight for a democracy that for so long had fought against him.  He protected freedoms that he had always been denied.  He defended a dream that society would never allow him to realize.   For a country that had made him, and those who looked like him, a pariah, Wilmeth Sidat-Singh made the ultimate sacrifice.  He gave his life and just like that, the dream was over before it had ever really begun.

Courtesy of Devan Dignan+

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1 Dave McKenna, “The Syracuse Walking Dream”, Washington City Paper, May 23, 2008.

2 Ron Fimrite, “Sam Lacy: Black Crusader”, Sports Illustrated, October 29, 1990.

3 Luke Cyphers, “The Lost Hero”, The Daily News, February 25, 2001.

4 Gerald Horne,“The End of Empires: African Americans and India”, Temple University Press, 2008.

5 Sal Maiorana and Scott Pitoniak, “Slices of Orange: Great Games and Performers in Syracuse University Sports History”, Syracuse University Press, 2005.

6 Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963.

7 Larry Schwartz, “Owens Pierced a Myth”, ESPN.com, Accessed June 9, 2010, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury/features/00016393.html.

8  “SU to Honor A Pioneer — Wilmeth Sidat-Singh”, Syracuse University Athletics, Accessed June 7, 2010,  http://www.suathletics.com/news/2005/2/24/sidat-singh.aspx.

9 “Countdown to Kickoff: The Legend of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh”, Syracuse University Athletics, Accessed June 7, 2010, http://www.suathletics.com/news/2003/8/9/sidat%20singh.aspx.

10 Hal Jackson with Jim Haskins, “The House that Jack Built”, Colossus Books, 2001.

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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.