Did you know that an all-Black professional basketball team won a championship before the NBA existed? NBA legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is so determined to share the knowledge that he has produced and co-written a documentary about that team.
“On the Shoulders of Giants” tells the story of the Harlem Rens, a basketball powerhouse from 1922-1948 who became the sport’s first African-American championship team in 1939. The Rens were so named because they played home games at the Renaissance Casino and Ballroom in Harlem, when that New York City neighborhood was called “the capital of Black America.” The Rens were known for pinpoint passing, intense defense and a willingness to take on all comers.
They often faced white teams, such as the Oshkosh All-Stars, whom they defeated in the 1939 title game. The Rens disbanded after a new league called the NBA refused to admit them, or any black players.
For Abdul-Jabbar—the NBA’s all-time leading scorer, 19-time all-star and six-time champion—telling the Rens’ story is very important. Born and reared in Harlem, Abdul-Jabbar understands that Rens’ stars such as Pop Gates, Sweetwater Clifton and John Isaacs helped paved the way for his success in basketball. He stood on the shoulders of giants, just as today’s NBA stars stand on the shoulders of men like Abdul-Jabbar. “Black history is something I’ve always been passionate about,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who earned a history degree along with three national championships at UCLA.
Even if you’re not a basketball fan, there’s much to learn and enjoy in “On the Shoulders of Giants.” The documentary has an infectious jazz soundtrack. After all, the Rens were born during the jazz age. Among the film’s talking heads are Wynton Marsalis, who compares the teamwork of a successful basketball team to that of a jazz ensemble. And while there is only 40 seconds of film footage on the Rens, the documentary features illustrations from artist Justin Bua and animation.
More than one million schoolchildren have watched “Giants” since the film’s debut during Black History Month, Abdul-Jabbar said. It’s so well done that perhaps another filmmaker will be inspired to tell the story of a 7-foot-2 athlete who revolutionized basketball with his versatility and an unstoppable shot called the sky hook. That would be Abdul-Jabbar himself.
Cecil Harris is the author of three books, including Charging the Net: A History of Blacks in Tennis from Althea Gibson and Arthur Ashe to the Williams Sisters