Hall Opens Doors for Basketball Pioneer John Isaacs
by Eddie Mayrose

Sunday night, as I was watching the Cardinals beat the Cubs, I noticed on the crawl at the bottom of my screen that the Naismith Basketball Hallcheap_seats_3-150x150 of Fame had named its inductees for 2015.  At first, I sneered at the selection of the used car salesman, John Calipari, and wondered if the committee considered the two times he’d led Vacated University to the Final Four.  I laughed when I saw Spencer Haywood’s name, recalling former New York Post columnist, Peter Vescey’s pet name for the enigmatic star – Spencer Driftwood.  However, when I saw that John Isaacs would also be enshrined in Springfield,  I beamed with pride.  While I’m sure that almost all of those reading this column have no idea who he was, I am very fortunate to say that my sons, me and hundreds of others who were taught lessons about basketball and life by this quiet hero, knew him very well.

John Isaacs, Naismith Hall of Fame 2015

John Isaacs, Naismith Hall of Fame 2015

John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs signed a contract in 1936 to play professionally with the New York Renaissance, a team of all black players named for the Renaissance Ballroom where they played their home games. A barnstorming squad that played and beat white championship basketball teams like the Original Celtics, the Rens had had a record of 112 – 7 and won a number of Colored Basketball World Championships. When Isaacs won his first, he took a razor blade to his championship jacket and removed the word “Colored.”

He later played for a number of professional outfits including the Washington Bears, where he won a second World Pro title. Isaacs was named to the World Professional Basketball Tournament Second Team in 1943.  Along with former teammate and now fellow Hall of Famer, William “Pop” Gates, he was instrumental in the development of the motion offense.

Among the Rens’ many opponents was legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who played for the Indianapolis Kautskys.

“To this day,” said Wooden in a 2000 interview, “I have never seen a team play better team basketball. They had great athletes, but they weren’t as impressive as their team play. The way they handled and passed the ball was just amazing to me then and I believe it would be today.”

Isaacs and his teammates on the 1938-1939 World Champions were enshrined as a unit in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 1963.

When his playing career ended,  Isaacs went on to become a youth mentor and recreation counselor at the Madison Avenue Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx, a position he held for more than forty years. He also co-hosted a weekly sports talk radio show, “What’s Going On?” that aired over the CCNY community radio station. Ever the athlete, he won medals at the New York State Senior games in Basketball, Tennis and Frisbee.

It was his annual trip with his young players to the Carnesecca-Sarachek basketball camp in upstate New York, though, where it was my good fortune to meet Coach Isaacs. I was a CYO basketball coach lucky enough to be on the staff and get a discount on the camp fee for my three boys. To say that I wasn’t in his league  is an understatement. Yet, he always called me “Coach,” an honorific reserved for someone far more accomplished than I. His temperament, demeanor and quiet dignity commanded the respect of players and coaches alike and he made no concessions for the fact that he was in his mid-eighties. He manned a drill station each day and always handled a team in the camp’s highest division.

Despite his age and pre-disposition to teach the team aspects of the game to young men more inclined to a one-on-one, selfish brand of ball, Coach Isaacs was immensely popular with his players and usually won them over to his style in short order. He had no problem doling out the tough love, either, but often in his own humorous way. There were many lunch periods where I would overhear kids laughing out loud while recounting one of his folksy criticisms. My personal favorite was one he used to describe shooters with no regard for their low percentage of success.

“That boy couldn’t hit a bull’s ass with a stick” was how he painted the picture.

He loved his players, though, something my son Terrence learned while doing an internship at Madison Square Garden when he was in college.Isaacs 2

The Knicks honored Coach Isaacs before a game in January of 2009.  Before the ceremony, Isaacs was waiting to be announced when Terrence saw him and reintroduced himself.

“Coach Isaacs, you may not remember me, but I played for you.”

Always as sharp as a tack, Isaacs looked at my son and said, “Carnesecca camp.”

The two spoke for a few minutes about their short five days together as player and coach before Isaacs was summoned onto the court.  Afterwards, when a Garden official offered to escort him to his seat, Isaacs declined.

Pointing at Terrence he said, “I’d like to walk out with my player if that’s OK.”

Terrence felt like a king.

Coach Isaacs passed away a few months later at the age of 93. He left a legacy as a role model to countless young men fortunate enough to meet him along the way. He was a role model for middle aged men as well, and I’d like to think that some of my own players benefited from the things I learned from him on those hot summer days upstate. Thanks, Coach.  Congratulations.

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