On this day in 1972, Bob Douglas became the first African American inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. Not Bill Russell?! Who the hell is Bob Douglas anyway?
The Basketball Hall of Fame opened in 1959. But despite the fact that it took them 13 years to induct an African American into it, basketball’s history has not been nearly as racist as baseball. In the early days of basketball, it was highly segregated — but only because the society itself was. There were, for example, white players on the Harlem Globetrotters. What’s more, black teams played white teams.
Bob Douglas was one of the pioneers of barnstorming basketball. He founded and coached the New York Renaissance — generally known as the Rens. Apparently, in the 1920s and early 1930s, the biggest basketball attractions in the nation were the games between the Rens and the Original Celtics (which has nothing to do with the Boston Celtics, but was a very white team). They won the World Professional Basketball Tournament in 1939. And in 1948, they came in second, losing to the Minneapolis Lakers who were led by the legendary George Mikan. (Note: the Minneapolis Lakers are today’s Los Angeles Lakers — they moved in 1960.)
The Rens disbanded in 1949. By that point, the NBA was on the rise. The only team to survive from that period were the Harlem Globetrotters. Although it’s interesting to note that what the Globetrotters are today is more like what basketball used to be. It’s the NBA that has changed the game.
Bob Douglas played a part in getting the first African American player, Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton, signed to the newly established NBA. That’s incredibly important, of course — as is Douglas’ status as the “Father of Black Professional Basketball.” But what I find so fascinating about people like Bob Douglas is that they have idiosyncratic ideas and they just go with them. The fact that Douglas was hugely successful at his doesn’t matter to me as much as his commitment.
Bob Douglas died in 1979 at the age of 96.