On The Shoulders Of Giants

On The Shoulders Of Giants

On The Shoulders Of Giants debuts tonight on Showtime at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

Though he’s only credited as a narrator and cowriter instead of director, On The Shoulders Of Giants is clearly Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s pet project. He is very interested in the early history of black basketball teams, so this documentary exists. Jerry West, Bill Russell, Charles Barkley, Al Sharpton, Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, John Wooden, Jim Nantz, Carmelo Anthony, and Abdul-Jabbar’s fellow narrator Jamie Foxx probably wouldn’t have been involved with this project as talking heads if not for Kareem spearheading the project. Still, this is an important spotlight on a relatively forgotten era in basketball history. Using the Harlem Renaissance and the Great Migration as a backdrop, Giants tells the forgotten history of the New York Renaissance, the “greatest basketball team you’ve never heard of” from the 1920s and ’30s, and winners of the first professional basketball championship that included black teams.

The documentary opens with an old-school bar debate between four legends: name the greatest basketball team of all time. Bill Russell goes with his Celtics teams, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf picks the Jordan/Pippen/Rodman Bulls teams in the ’90s, Jerry West picks the Magic/Abdul-Jabbar Lakers, and former Globetrotter Marques Haynes picks the Harlem Globetrotters, winners of 13,140 straight games—over the hapless Washington Generals. The one big takeaway from the entire conversation? Russell is still as competitive and arrogant now as he was on the court in his prime, unwilling to yield the idea that Michael Jordan, Abdul-Jabbar, or Magic Johnson were better players than him. Forget the fact that Russell never would have even guarded Jordan, or that Abdul-Jabbar’s sky hook was unheard of in Russell’s day. Russell is infuriating and enthralling at the same time, with exactly the kind of fire for supremacy in the face of conventional wisdom we expect from our greatest athletes.

But that’s besides the point, since that debate is all one big setup for Abdul-Jabbar to interject and posit that one overlooked and neglected team merits inclusion in that conversation: the New York Renaissance, or the Harlem Rens, an all-black barnstorming team formed at the Renaissance Casino in Harlem during the 1920s. During that era, black athletes were barred from competing against white teams across many major sports. This brings up another frequent argument in sports, specifically about Babe Ruth in baseball: How can someone be considered one of the best if they didn’t have to play against the best competition, in Ruth’s case, the pitchers in the Negro Leagues? The same argument applies to basketball, and in that era without a unified league, the Original Celtics dominated, despite playing against the Rens in exhibition games that didn’t count for anything other than pride.

Many of the talking heads get in some acute, salient points. Barkley notes that entitled current players don’t make $20 million because they’re better than past players, they were just born at the right time. Sure, they’re in peak physical condition and play against stiffer competition, but without the struggling pioneers like the Rens, NBA integration gets delayed, and cultural progress stagnates. Anthony, not known for his humility, actually comes off as a cogent, appreciative contemporary player, making sure to state complete gratitude towards the Rens and all they did to pave the way for the current state of black athletes in America. Interviews with the surviving Rens players are all enlightening, as are their stories about barnstorming experiences through a dangerous American South that continued to lynch black with impunity and absolutely no remorse.

The other incredibly intriguing segment compares the Rens to the other dominant black team of the era: the Harlem Globetrotters. Despite only playing exhibition games, the Globetrotters continue to thrive as an organization, while the Rens’ former home has grown dilapidated, their history forgotten. But what’s fascinating is the history behind the two teams, that the Globetrotters are from Chicago, their name only used to advertise the color of its players to patrons. The troubled history of minstrel performers comes into play here, as the Harlem Globetrotters were seen as entertainment for white people, while the Rens played tough basketball and represented the Harlem community entirely. The Rens, like the Negro League baseball teams, were an incredible example of black small-business ownership, and perhaps the saddest side effect of integration in professional sports. Teams like the Rens never crossed over to the major leagues; the white-owned teams simply took the black players, cutting out black ownership in basketball that continued until Michael Jordan became the black first owner of a Big Four sports team when he bought the Charlotte Bobcats.

There is no video from the Rens’ 1939 championship win, so instead Abdul-Jabbar simply narrates abbreviated stories of the games—first against the Harlem Globetrotters, then the final against the Oshkosh All-Stars—on a couch in conversation with Chuck D, accompanied by short, animated interludes. It’s an anticlimactic way to deal with the moment the documentary has been building to the whole time, but when it comes down to it, the championship isn’t the most interesting part of the story, it’s just the hurdle the Rens cleared that helped to keep basketball moving towards integration in the future. The contrasting competitive relationship between the Rens and Globetrotters says far more about how racial politics got sucked into marketing gimmicks at the time.

In a documentary that only runs 75 minutes, Giants gets off track too quickly and too often. It still goes in intriguing directions on its tangents, but when the film gets sidetracked, it’s hard not to wonder if a 45-minute entry in the ESPN Films Presents series may have been a better fit for this story. In one memorable, if digressive scene, Maya Angelou gets choked up when recounting the story of listening to Joe Lewis’ 1937 heavyweight-title fight on the radio at her grandmother’s store in Arkansas. It’s a very emotional moment, and it’s used to help make the point that African-Americans were fighting for equality through famous athletes competing and defeating the best in the world — but its so tangentially related to the Rens and that basketball story that it either belongs in its own volume of a longer documentary, or as a bonus feature to a shorter piece on the Rens. Much of the film is devoted to cultural exposition to bring in the uninitiated, and that beginner’s knowledge is important, but On The Shoulders Of Giants is by no means a comprehensive examination of the Rens and their era in basketball. Kareem Abdul-Jabaar has created the entry point for anyone interested in this historical perspective; it’s up to the viewer to seek out more in-depth information on a now less-forgotten, integral part of basketball’s evolution.

Stray observations:

  • As a Bay Area guy, I don’t have any particular NBA fan affiliation, but man, Bill Russell really skated close to coming off as an absolute prick in that opening debate. I wonder what was going on in West’s or Kareem’s head as Russell kept telling people they were wrong to put anyone over him and his Celtics.
  • The title comes from an Isaac Newton quote, which gives credit to those who came before for current accomplishments. It’s quite a nice sentiment to strike. 
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