The feature-length documentary On the Shoulders of Giants honors a group of sports pioneers who have been all but forgotten to time, and it celebrates the legacy of a magical game – and the shoulders that today’s players stand on.
Featuring and co-written by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the doc sets the record straight about the Harlem Rens, the first Black professional basketball team to win a national championship.
This story finds its footing in the rhythms of jazz, its roots in the Harlem Renaissance… and its voice in a group of players much too talented to be ignored.
Basketball today is a star sport, with the highly paid players, endorsements, and the fan base to prove it. But that wasn’t always the case. In the beginning, those who tried to make a living at it, Black or white, had a hardscrabble life. But one immigrant from the West Indies, Bob Douglas, loved the new sport of basketball and was determined to make it profitable. To do this, he would not only have to fight for the game itself, but against the rampant racism that was determined to see him fail. His team, the New York Renaissance Big Five, affectionately known as the Harlem Rens, became the embodiment of a new attitude among Blacks who fought to be recognized for their abilities rather than for the color of their skin. They were the precursors to those brave men and women who, twenty years later, would found the Civil Rights Movement.
The story of the Harlem Rens blends almost seamlessly with the burgeoning popularity of a brand-new sound: jazz. Like jazz, the Rens were brash, young, strong, and Black; all of which frightened the status quo. Which meant that, no matter how good they were, the Rens would not be given the opportunity to prove it by playing against a white team for a professional title. The best they could do was to finally arrange an exhibition game with a white powerhouse known as the Original Celtics. This pivotal game would have no official status but would show the world that the Rens – and Blacks in general – would no longer be ignored. And indeed, all of Harlem expected a win. The Celtics might be world champs, but the Rens – with jazz in their blood, and the moves to prove it – had an impressive win record.
Harlem expected a slaughter against their white opponents, and they got one: in reverse. The final score wasn’t even close. The Rens – the pride and the hope of Harlem – had lost. It was the Depression that began to turn things around, putting many basketball teams, black and white, on the road. The Rens, with their jazz-inspired moves, played the Original Celtics and other white teams, winning many more games than they lost. And though the constant contact turned former enemies – the Harlem Rens and the Original Celtics – into friends, racism was still a powerful nemesis. Bob Douglas’s goal, to have his team compete professionally against white teams, still seemed out of reach.
But in 1939, two mavericks decided to create the world’s first integrated professional basketball tournament. There had been other “world championships,” but what made this one closer to living up to its grandiose name was that this would be the first time both Black and white teams would compete for a national title. Now the Rens would be forced to prove, once and for all, that they weren’t all talk: going up first against another black powerhouse, the Harlem Globetrotters, and then – if victorious – following that game with their first “official” contest against a white team: the previous year’s champions, the Oshkosh All-Stars. And nobody, but nobody, thought the Rens were ready.
Archival footage, innovative 3D graphics and reenactments, along with Interviews with celebrities and sports legends, all combine to tell the story of the greatest basketball team you never heard of – and of the heroes, both sung and unsung, who remind us that we are all standing On the Shoulders of Giants.
You can buy a dvd of this documentary at Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s website – http://store.kareemabduljabbar.com/.