Kareem uses film to teach Phila. students about the Harlem Rens

Basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar visited a Philadelphia high school Tuesday morning to show his new documentary. The NBA’s all-time scoring leader has turned his attention to the first African-American basketball championship team, the Harlem Rens.

Abdul-Jabbar grew up in Harlem. In high school he learned about the music and literature of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s and 30’s. But sports are not normally part of that story.

Basketball leagues were segregated at the time; black players were not allowed to compete for top championships. An African-American team had no place to play, so they asked the owner of a club called the Renaissance Ballroom if they could use the dance floor. In the first professional sports name-licensing agreement, the owner of the club insisted that the team name itself after the club. Hence: the Harlem Rens.

The film, called On the Shoulders of Giants, describes how ticket-holders could watch the Rens play on the club’s dance floor. After the game the hoops were removed, the big band brought out, and the evening continued with music and dancing. All for a 55-cent ticket.

Abdul-Jabbar produced the film as the centerpiece of his educational non-profit called The Skyhook Foundation. He says unlike the Harlem Globetrotters, who trained to be entertainers, the Harlem Rens trained to be champions.

“They had a passing game, a very tough defense,” said Abdul-Jabbar, who studied film footage of the team. “The ball had a seam on it, with laces, like a football. If you bounce it, eventually it would hit that seam and take a weird bounce. So the passing game was necessary.”

On the day the film became available online as video-on-demand, Abdul-Jabbar appeared at Bodine High School in Northern Liberties, a magnet school.

Students had questions about the historical film, and questions about why he wasn’t included on the new video game NBA 2K11. Abdul-Jabbar had never heard of it.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.