With the upcoming arrival of the Pittsburgh Hard Hats, is there more to the history of professional basketball in Pittsburgh than the retro Rens jerseys I see around town? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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With the upcoming arrival of the Pittsburgh Hard Hats, is there more to the history of professional basketball in Pittsburgh than the retro Rens jerseys I see around town?

Question submitted by: Ranisa Rubin, Shadyside

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It's true: Pittsburgh is due to receive yet another non-NBA pro basketball team. Cynics, though, might suggest that Pittsburgh Hard Heads might be a better name ... as in "hard-headed refusal to see reality." For the Hard Hats will be the eighth professional basketball team to make a go of it in Pittsburgh.

 

The city's basketball history dates back to the late 1930s, when the Pittsburgh Pirates played for the fledging National Basketball League. (Hockey, it seems is the only professional sport that hasn't had at least one "Pittsburgh Pirates" franchise in its history; the Steelers carried the name until owner Art Rooney Sr. held a contest to change it.) The team lasted two seasons and was replaced by the Pittsburgh Raiders in 1944. Neither of these teams was particularly distinguished, and in 1946 they were replaced by another squad with working-class pretensions: the Ironmen.

 

Sports historians typically date 1946 as the beginning of the National Basketball Association, but it was the beginning of the end -- or at least an end -- for Pittsburgh hoops. The league's worst team, the Ironmen melted before the opposition and disbanded after one season.

 

It wasn't until 1961 that Pittsburgh got another squad under the auspices of the American Basketball League. The Pittsburgh Rens were owned by three brothers: Eugene, Archie and Lenny Litman. Eugene apparently had a soft spot for lost causes; he later became an investor in the Pittsburgh Pirates and once tried to buy a USFL football team for Pittsburgh. The Rens, whose name paid homage to the Pittsburgh Renaissance, didn't fare much better. The ABL collapsed less than two-dozen games into the season, the Rens finished just ahead of the Oakland Oaks but well behind the leading Kansas City Steers, but with a more obscure name than both. Perhaps the Rens' most lasting contribution was that they helped resurrect the career of a future NBA Hall-of-Famer, Connie Hawkins. Hawkins was one of the greats -- "He was Michael [Jordan] before Michael," former Philadelphia 76ers coach Larry Brown once told ESPN -- but controversy over rumored ties to gambling kept him out of the NBA for years.

 

Probably the most storied of Pittsburgh's pro-basketball teams was the Pittsburgh Pipers, who played the inaugural 1967-68 season of the American Basketball Association. City dwellers had squeaky-voiced Broadway star Carol Channing to thank for the Pipers (not to mention all those Love Boat appearances). According to a November 2003 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette obituary of Pipers owner Gabe Rubin, the team's purchase was financed from the profits of a successful stage run of Hello, Dolly! Led again by Hawkins, the Pipers -- whose logo for a time featured a bagpiper and played on the city's Scots-Irish roots -- won the ABA championship that year, although for much of the season they drew only a couple thousand fans a game.

 

After winning a championship, the team relocated to Minneapolis/St. Paul, and then came back to Pittsburgh, where it was rechristened the Condors. Ominously enough, a condor is an ungainly bird that tends to circle around dead meat before feasting upon it. And sure enough, the team only lasted another year. "I changed the name to the Condors because that is a dying bird and the team was a dying franchise," the team's one-time president explained to the Post-Gazette in 2000. Despite frequent ticket giveaways, he explained, "[Y]ou can't promote a funeral."

 

But you can, it seems, dig up the corpse and bury it over and over again. In 1994 and 1995, the Continental Basketball Association established a local franchise called the Pittsburgh Piranhas. The Piranhas lasted only a year, but fought their way to a losing championship match against the Yakima (Washington) Sun Kings. Even this success wasn't enough to attract local interest. Only recently, with the University of Pittsburgh Panthers poised on the brink of greatness -- and every other team is poised on the brink of catastrophe -- has basketball generated much excitement. And of course now we already have a non-NBA team to watch. We'll soon find out whether we can handle two of them.

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