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Have You Ever Heard of: William ‘Pop’ Gates?

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Have You Ever Heard of…? is a series of articles written to recognize some of the lesser known Hall of Fame inductees whose contributions to the game are underappreciated and who deserve the “fame” that comes with enshrinement.

For the first few decades basketball was played, the athletes were referred to as “cagers” because the court was framed by a chain link fence. Now, we talk about the game being “tougher” in the ’80s and ’90s, but that was nothing compared to the ’30s and ’40s when players were getting hockey-checked into the “cage.”

Matthew Alice of the San Diego Reader wrote about this in 1998:

“Cagers”: the final entry in our orgy of origins, our fiesta of facts. In the first two decades of basketball’s history, the rules said an out-of-bounds ball belonged to the first team to touch it after it crossed the line. Naturally, this sent both squads into elbow-throwing stampedes to claim possession. Naturally, this resulted in bruised and battered spectators. Naturally, the spectators fought back. Pre-1914 basketball was a free-for-all — players trampling fans, fans lobbing vegetables. A wire cage around basketball courts was the solution until one night some official sat bolt upright in bed and yelled, “Hey, Madge, wake up! I’ve got it! Howzabout we save on the chickenwire and just change the rules!” Backboards date from this era too. They kept missed shots from beaning fans, who often didn’t like giving the ball back.

And according to Hoop Tactics, things could get a little rough:

Basketball at one time was referred to as the “Cage Game” and players’ “Cagers”. This was a result of wire mesh (chicken wire) or chain-link fencing being hung around the entire court in an effort to make the game go faster by eliminating all the out of bounds delays. However, in reality, it served more as a barrier to protect the players and rowdy spectators from each other, as well as from the objects being thrown onto the court. The wire cage actually resulted in additional rough play with players body checking each other into the wire mesh as in hockey. Players often  received cuts, bruises, and even incurred infections from the rusting wire mesh. Although, the use of cages were abandoned by 1933, the term “Cagers” is still used today.

I don’t think they had replays to distinguish between a Flagrant 1 and a Flagrant 2 back then. And it was in such an environment that William “Pop” Gates arose.

Richard Goldstein wrote in Gates’s obituary in The New York Times:

He led an integrated Benjamin Franklin High School team to the New York City basketball championship in 1938, attended Clark College in Atlanta briefly, then joined the Renaissance Big Five, a squad known as the Rens that was based at Harlem’s Renaissance Casino ballroom but traveled through the East, Midwest and South as the premier pro basketball attraction of the Depression years.

Now, what makes this fascinating is that Gates was a black man. This was almost a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. And it was a much more physical sport. Do you think that a few racists might have wanted to deal a little “extra” punishment on the blacks who dared to believe they could play with the white man?

In his initial years as a pro, Gates played with a group known as the “Harlem Renaissance Big Five” or Harlem Ren. As a rookie, he led the team to the first World Professional Basketball Tournament title.

The Rens were an all-black team who played a heavy schedule and feared no one.

“We played every day and twice on Sunday,” said Jim Usry, a member of the Rens from 1946-51. “We played all over — Hartford, New Haven, Springfield. We’d play a road game in the afternoon and play back in New York that night.”

The Rens took on all comers, playing against semipro, black college and other professional teams, including the premier team of that era, the Original Celtics. Featuring Dutch Dehnert, Nat Holman and Joe Lapchick, the Celtics were known as extraordinary passers and showmen who revolutionized the way basketball was played.

The games featuring the Rens and Celtics were hot tickets, with some contests drawing as many as 15,000 fans. The games were hard fought and civil on the court, but off the court was a different story.

“There were race riots that took place during five of their games,” said Richard Lapchick, son of Celtics center Joe Lapchick. “But the players believed that they represented a game that was something special in their lives.”

There were race riots during five of their games!!!  But other than that it was civil, I guess:

And then Gates moved to the NBL — the precursor to the NBA — as Jackie Robinson was breaking the color barrier in baseball. Goldstein notes:

Gates was embroiled in a nasty episode in a game against Syracuse that season, engaging in a fight with a Nationals player, Chick Meehan, who Gates contended had twice thrown him to the floor. The four black players — Gates, Dolly King, Willie King and Bill Farrow, who played for four different teams — were all gone from the league by the following season.

During the 1948-49 season, he returned to the NBL as a player-coach for the Dayton Rens, where, according to his Hall of Fame bio at Naismith,  he became the first black head coach of a major league professional sports team in America.

After one season of that, he joined up with the Harlem Globetrotters where he stayed until he retired in 1955.

It wasn’t until 1989 that his contributions to the game were recognized, and he was enshrined into the Hall of Fame. But he was one of the few to carry the game from cages to courts and from segregated to integrated. Considering the violence of the game at the time, and the hostility of the hearts of some of the men that played it towards blacks, Gates’s contributions certainly deserve appreciation.

And now you’ve heard of William “Pop” Gates.

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