The American Basketball League played one full season, 1961–1962, and part of the next season until the league folded on December 31, 1962. The founder of the ABL, Abe Saperstein, was the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, who had competed for many decades against the New York Rens and eventually bought the rights to the Rens' name. Because of the Pittsburgh Renaissance urban renewal project, it was convenient to coin the "Rens" as an instantly-recognizable name for this new version of a basketball team.
When the official announcement of the league was made on April 21, 1960, the original plan was to begin play with six teams in the latter portion of 1960 and add two expansion teams the following year. However, in order to give more time for organizing the league and have all teams beginning at the same time, the start of the league was pushed back to October 1961.
Those two expansion teams were announced on May 10, 1960, with the locales in Pittsburgh and Portland, with future possibilities in Honolulu, Salt Lake City and Vancouver. That changed in October 1960, when Honolulu replaced Portland in the eight-team circuit.
The Rens were owned by Ray (aka Archie), Eugene and Lenny Litman, prominent Pittsburgh businessmen brothers, along with local insurance executive Oscar (Sparky) Adams. Ray Litman, who had made his mark as a fight promoter, had fruitlessly sought to obtain an NBA franchise for Pittsburgh before turning to the ABL. At the time of the announcement of the team, plans were in motion to play at the under-construction Pittsburgh Civic Arena.
However, the NBA had announced plans to expand to Pittsburgh and Chicago, with that new franchise in line to have better playing dates at the new arena. Litman was on the verge of moving the team to Houston when Pittsburgh's proposed NBA owner John Harris dropped out less than 24 hours after he'd been chosen by the league. Saying that he knew nothing about basketball, Harris was embarrassed when his belief that Boston Celtics guard Bill Sharman would coach his team was quickly denied by Sharman.
NBA Commissioner Maurice Podoloff made an effort to entice Litman into taking over the abandoned expansion team. That effort died when St. Louis Hawks owner Ben Kerner dismissed the notion and Litman chose to stay in the ABL.
Litman hired Neil Johnston as the team's coach, just weeks after he had resigned from that same capacity with the NBA's Philadelphia Warriors.
On April 22, Litman announced that the team would be known as the Pittsburgh Renaissance, or Rens for short. His stated reason for choosing the name was because, "I wanted to choose a name applicable to the rebirth of Pittsburgh." The shortened version also had some basketball history attached to it, since a New York team had that nickname decades earlier.
On October 2, 1961. the Rens opened their first training camp at Pitt Pavilion, the former home of the Pittsburgh Panthers college basketball team. Following a preseason schedule, they opened the regular season on Nov. 5 at the Civic Arena against the Cleveland Pipers.