Forgotten Greatness: The Washington Bears Basketball Team
Ask most people about the history of professional basketball in Washington, D.C. and they’ll probably mention the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets’ move to D.C. in the 1970s. Or maybe a few old timers might remember the Washington Capitols, D.C.’s Basketball Association of America team that was coached by GW alum Red Auerbach. But, sadly most have forgotten about the true trailblazers of Washington, D.C. basketball, the Washington Bears.
The history of the Bears can be traced back to the D.C.’s journalism pioneer Harold “Hal” Jackson. In 1939, Jackson began broadcasting Howard University’s home baseball games and the Negro League baseball team, The Homestead Grays. In 1941, Jackson used his popularity and sports business savvy to organize a new all-black basketball team in the District.
In those days, there was not a black professional basketball league like baseball’s Negro Leagues but independent African American teams played one another on a nationwide barnstorming circuit.
As former Bears star Charles “Tarzan” Cooper told Sports Illustrated in 1979, “It seems like I spent my whole life on the road. When I look back on my playing days, all I see is that old bus…Blacks couldn’t stay in most hotels, and sometimes we had to drive 400 miles to find a hotel.”
Most teams were comprised of inner-city working men who would play games once or twice a week. The class of the circuit was the New York Rennaissance (a.k.a. Harlem Rens)… at least until D.C. entered the picture.
The District’s team gained financial backing from Abe Lichtman, at the time an owner of the Howard and Lincoln Theatre. With Lichtman’s deep pockets, the Washington “Lichtman” Bears had more money to spend than the New York Renaissance’s team owner Bob Douglass. Thus, Hal Jackson was able to sign away several of the Rens’ top players, including two future Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers – Cooper and William “Pop” Gates – and a standout guard named John “Boy Wonder” Isaacs.
Almost immediately thereafter, the Bears became a force. As Baltimore Afro-American sports writer Al White commented in 1942, “The five best basketball teams in the East today are the Washington Bears, the New York Black Yankees, the Paterson Crescents, the Philadelphia Toppers and the Baltimore Mets.”
In 1943, Tarzan Cooper, John Isaacs and Pop Gates led the Washington Bears to a 41-0 record. In the championship game of the World Professional Basketball Championship tournament, Isaacs led the Bears in scoring and they defeated the Oshkosh All-Stars, 43-31. (The World Professional Basketball Championship was an invitational tournament for professional basketball teams sponsored by the Chicago Herald American. The event attracted teams from all across the country – both independent squads and teams from the National Basketball League, the precursor to today's NBA.)
Tournament chairman Leo Fischer described the Bears feat like this in the 1942-43 Converse Basketball Yearbook:
“Winning the World’s title, the Washington team performed a feat that NO PREVIOUS WINNER HAS RECORDED. They finished the 1943 season with a perfect record having won every one of their 41 starts. THIS IS THE FIRST TIME SINCE THE TURN OF THE CENTURY THAT A PROFESSIONAL BASKETBALL TEAM HAS ENJOYED A SEASON WITHOUT A SINGLE DEFEAT.”
Relive the moment with this newsreel from Historic Films. The Bears story runs from 01:00:56 to 01:02:50 and features some great game footage!
The Bears played most of their home games at cozy Turner’s Arena (2000 seat capacity), which stood on the northeast corner of 14th and W Streets, NW. Much like the scene at Homestead Grays baseball games, fans going to see the Bears play were predominantly black and African American press outlets like the Washington Afro American covered the team religiously.
However, the mainstream press – and white Washington in general – was much slower to give them their due. As famed Washington Post sports columnist Shirley Povich remarked in 1944, when a charity game between the Bears and a “Wonder Team” of Long Island University alums coached by Claire Bee was moved to the spacious Uline Arena:
“The game ought to be a beaut and Washington for the first time will be seeing in large numbers the Bear quintet that for three years has confined its activities to Turner’s Arena. The city has not quite appreciated the skill of these Bears who haven’t been on display in a hall as large as Uline’s, and the game should be an awakening of some sort.”
The game was a sellout and was certainly an indication of Washington’s growing appetite for basketball. Still, it’s safe to say that the Bears never got the fame they deserved given their talent and accomplishments. The team played several more seasons until the N.B.A. was integrated in 1950 and then disbanded.
For more on the history of the Bears and other “Black Five” basketball teams, check out the Black Fives Foundation website. Also, listen to this feature from NPR.