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  • Three People, Three Journeys, Three Legacies
  • Susan Rayl

How many lives can one person influence? In the examples of three people: John Isaacs, Holcombe Rucker and Charlotte Lewis, the answer is dozens, hundreds . . . perhaps thousands. Though few basketball fans or sport historians have heard of these three individuals, they each merit recognition for their contributions on and off the basketball court. And, their life stories serve as examples of achievement, despite the personal struggles and societal challenges they faced.

Susan Rayl writes about how John Isaacs influenced the lives of youth in New York. Born in Panama in 1915, Isaacs grew up in Harlem and gained All-City status while playing for Textile High School in the mid 1930s. Recruited by owner/manager Bob Douglas, Isaacs played with the barnstorming New York Renaissance professional basketball team, the team that won the 1939 “World” Professional championship. His brash and bold personality caused him to question authority, discriminatory treatment, and segregated conditions on the road, a trait that endured throughout his life. Isaacs played for the 1943 Washington Bears and several other professional teams in the Northeast until his retirement from active play in 1959. Working as a clerk for New York Life Insurance during the day, he spent his evenings at the Boys and Girls Club in the Bronx, where he taught, mentored, and counseled children and youth. Isaacs developed outreach programs as an alternative to gang activity and assisted in creating organizations, such as the John Hunter Memorial Camp Fund, to send youth to summer camp. His desire to educate about “those who came before” led him to teach people about the Rens and also to [End Page 1] persuade the New York Knicks Basketball organization to retire Nathaniel “Sweetwater” Clifton’s jersey. Isaac’s passed away at the age of ninety-three. His legacy remains not only in his high level of professional play but in the contributions he made to the youth of New York City.

Like Isaacs, Holcombe Rucker, the creator of the famed “Rucker Tournament” also influenced young people in New York City, according to author Jarrod Jonsrud. Born in the mid 1920s, Rucker possessed on intense desire to improve the lives of others. Growing up in poverty during the depression of the 1930s, he faced teasing at school and so sought solace on the Harlem playgrounds. He eventually found role models in Ollie Edinboro and Pelham Fritz. Upon returning home from service in World War II, Rucker obtained a job supervising New York playgrounds where he established youth basketball leagues in 1946. Through basketball, he promoted education, requiring his players to maintain good grades in order to participate. After adding a summer youth tournament in 1950 followed by high school, senior, and professional divisions in 1953, Rucker contacted college scouts, keeping an eye out for coaches who failed to meet his standards of “academics first.” After years of night school, Rucker reached his goal of attaining a college degree, and in 1961 he took a job teaching junior high school in Harlem. His tournament had grown exponentially by the mid 1960s, yet he refused to commercialize the venture, retaining control. Holcombe Rucker lost his life to pancreatic cancer in March of 1965, but he left a legacy that endures today. While the famed Rucker Tournament serves as his most notable contribution, his greatest perhaps remains with the thousands of youth he motivated to excel not only on the basketball court but in the classroom and the game of life.

Finally, Ellyn Bartges examines the life of Charlotte Lewis. A top college and professional basketball player, Charlotte Lewis grew up in the low-income Taft Home project of Peoria, Illinois, in the 1960s. Playing volleyball, softball, and a few games of basketball in high school, Lewis often found herself getting into trouble on the streets. Through the influence of her godmother, she attended Illinois State University (ISU) and eventually joined the women’s basketball team. Time on the court served as the main motivation for Lewis to stay in college—a mostly white, foreign environment for her. An intimidating and strong player who could jump and rebound, Lewis played on the 1975 Pan American team, the...


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