Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Indian Identity and Jesse "Cab" Renick, Captain of the 1948 U.S. Olympic Basketball Team in London


In London the scoreboard read 65-21 as the final gong mercifully rang out. Thirteen Frenchmen stood in a line opposite fourteen Americans watching the Stars and Stripes unfurl and listening to the band play the Star Spangled Banner. The final notes lingered as the United States’ players rushed forward and carried a six-foot two-inch slightly balding 30-year-old named Jesse Renick off the court on their shoulders, bringing an end to the 1948 London Olympic basketball tourney, an event which brought the United States their second basketball gold medal and cemented Renick’s unique place in history.

Renick (55) shakes hands with a member of the Red Cross.
Or a random Olympic basketball player from 1948. I can't tell. 

Or at least it should have cemented his place. After all, he is one of only three Native American gold medal winners in all of Olympic history (Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe being the others), an achievement which has earned him a place in the American Indian Athletic Hall of Fame. During his playing days, “Point-a-Minute Renick” averaged nearly twenty points a game for Murray State with a shoot-first, ask-questions-later style. When he transferred to Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State) in 1939, legendary coach Henry Iba’s slow-it-down style cut Renick’s scoring averages in half. Renick still managed to stand out, leading the team in scoring and gaining a reputation as “one of the most colorful players in the country.” He also became Oklahoma A&M’s first two-time All-American.

After his college career and a day after Pearl Harbor, Renick enlisted in the Navy. He did not resume his basketball career until the war was over, when he joined the AAU’s Phillips 66ers. Renick and other AAU players kept their amateur status by working a nine-to-five company job to earn their paycheck. The basketball was supposedly secondary, occurring only on nights and weekends.

Before the NBA was formed in 1949, the AAU was the leading option for former college basketball stars and there wasn't a better team from the 1940s than the squad sponsored by Phillips Petroleum. Between 1943 and 1950, the 66ers won eight AAU championships. Bob Kurland, a seven-footer who out-dueled the legendary George Mikan in college, was the team’s star, but Renick played Pippen to Kurland’s Jordan (or Kobe to his Shaq, minus the animosity).  

After earning back-to-back AAU All-American honors, Renick capped off his career by captaining the 1948 American basketball team in London. Upon retirement, he was described as “one of the most colorful players of all time, with burning speed and consuming love of competition."

The Phillips 66ers 1948 Squad

Yet you’ve probably never heard of Renick. Even those who are well aware of the achievements of Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe are often unfamiliar with the details behind Renick’s story. What makes Renick different?

It is possible that Renick was simply a victim of his era, a man who happened to win his gold medal at a time when basketball remained on the peripheries of America’s athletic consciousness. If that’s the case, it does not negate the fact that we should rediscover the accomplishments of a man who was ahead of his time. However, I suspect there might be more nuance to the explanation of Renick’s missing legacy.

In recent times, reporters have documented the steep road faced by Native Americans who wish to excel at the highest levels of competition. From ESPN’s Dana O’Neil to USA Today’s Greg Boeck to the New York Times’ Selena Roberts, the general narrative is that Native Americans athletes today find it difficult to embrace the ethic of individualistic achievement required to gain fame in mainstream American society. For some Native American cultures (the Navajos being one oft-cited example), the unity of the community is considered more important than the success of any one person, which places pressure on some athletes not to chase the individualistic dreams of mainstream America. Renick’s story of success simply does not fit that narrative.   

Born in rural Oklahoma in 1917 to a (in Jesse’s words) “tomato-faced Irishmen” named Miles and a part-Chickasaw, part-Choctaw woman named Ella, Renick spent most of his childhood devoid of any specific Indian influence. Renick’s mother died when he was six, and since Ella made the choice not to teach Jesse the traditional Choctaw or Chickasaw customs and language, he grew up formed by the same experiences that would shape other rural Oklahoma farm boys. There was one important difference, though: he still looked like an Indian.

Renick’s youth might be called “assimilation by circumstance.” While some American Indians (including Thorpe and Mills) had to go through the often demeaning experience of culture-eradication that occurred in boarding schools, and others grew up in the set-apart world of the reservation, Renick went about his life fully immersed in all the attitudes, behaviors and customs of "mainstream" (or at least rural, white) America.

Perhaps Renick’s situation made life easier for him. Certainly he didn’t feel guilty for leaving the reservation because he never set foot on a reservation in the first place. He possessed no formative American Indian worldview which could be abandoned or compromised. Yet Renick’s Indian identity was ever-present in his physical features, and he always embraced his Indian ethnicity. 

He good-naturedly remembered the comments (now seen as insensitive) of his college coach Iba who once yelled “Get that Indian out before he shoots us out of the ball game!” or the nickname of “Chief” given to him by his Olympic teammates. Newspapers during his playing days often called him “the great Indian star,” which was not nearly as egregious as the stories that ran in the Albuquerque Journal. There, Renick coached a local Navajo and Pueblo high school team, inspiring the newspaper to describe him as “head big chief Renick” whose team of Indians will “be on the warpath” to face a “Navajo invasion” in an “all-Indian clash.”    

Photo from a 1947 LIFE magazine feature on the Phillips 66ers.

In facing such racist undertones, Renick was certainly not alone. But in his case, such comments and attitudes did not keep him from playing basketball at the highest levels allowed in American society. Other Native Americans were not so lucky. In the same decade that Renick was the captain of the United States Olympic basketball team, American Indian basketball players such as Suitcase Little (of the Sioux Travelers-Warriors) were touring the country on ethnically-based barnstorming teams,  competing against local squads and coming out at halftime to perform tribal songs and dances so that the white audience would be entertained.

Was Suitcase Little “more Indian” than Renick? Perhaps some would argue that he was. His Indian identity certainly proved to be a greater obstacle on the way to success in mainstream America. I would suggest, however, that Renick’s story should not be dismissed as less important. He clearly defined himself as an Indian, and so did everyone else. The fact that his experience as an Indian was less hazardous to his pursuit of success compared with other American Indians should not diminish that fact.  At the very least, he represents one character of many in the multi-layered story of American Indian identity in the United States.

Pointing out that Renick’s accomplishments as an American Indian are overlooked should in no way diminish the attention given to Billy Mills and Jim Thorpe, two athletes whose stories are captivating and heroic. However, there is no doubt that their legacy certainly benefits because they spent their formative years on the reservation or at an Indian boarding school, experiencing firsthand the clash of cultures that is the stuff of in-depth investigative reporting today.

When those investigative feature stories are written, and the history of Native American athletic achievement is summarized, Renick receives nothing more than a name on a bulleted-list of “Native American Olympians.” Would it not be more accurate to add nuance to our explanation of what American Indians have achieved and what they have overcome? Would it not do more justice to the varied experiences of those who identify as American Indians today to point out that not all American Indian success stories fit the “out-of-the-reservation” narrative?

Before his death in 1999 at age eighty-two, Renick spent the waning years of his life at the Veteran’s Center in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Stories there circulated about the wheel-chair bound old man who carried around his Olympic gold medal in a pouch. Renick loved to surprise visitors by whipping out the medal and dropping it into their hands. Questions would naturally arise. How did you win this? When did you win this? What were the games like?  

For Renick, the medal went beyond simply representing personal achievement. “There’s only three Native Americans who have won a gold medal” he informed a Daily Ardmoreite reporter.  “There’s Jim Thorpe, who was Sac and Fox; Billy Mills, who was a fighting Sioux; and myself.”

The man who would sometimes call himself the “tall, bald Chickasaw” and other times the “tall, bald, Choctaw,” felt no need to explain the specifics. He was a Native American, and that was enough. 

NOTE: Research for this article was originally conducted in the process of writing an article titled "Jesse 'Cab' Renick, in Search of an Indian Identity," published in the Spring 2011 edition of Chronicles of Oklahoma.