HOW JEWS CHANGED BASKETBALL

by Mikhail Horowitz

 

Discussed in This Essay: The Chosen Game: A Jewish Basketball History, by Charley Rosen. University of Nebraska Press, 2017, 208 pages. 

Seven-foot Jews
in the NBA, slam-dunking!
My alarm clock rings.     —Anonymous haiku on the Internet

 

FOR THE MOST PART the Jewish hoopers chronicled by Charley Rosen in The Chosen Game did not play above the rim, going head-to-head with the game’s Goliaths. But from about 1900 until the mid-1950s, Jews were the dominant force in the rapidly evolving game of basketball. They could lay claim to the best players, the savviest tacticians, and the most visionary (if often controversial) executives.

Take, for example, the “Busy Izzies” of the University Settlement House in 1908. Coached by Harry Baum, who transposed the basics of lacrosse onto the basketball court, these feisty youngsters adopted an up-tempo pace, employing “quick, short passes [and] tight man-to-man defenses” that introduced the concept and practice of switching to the game. They pretty much beat all comers.

Or one of Baum’s star pupils, Barney Sedran — all 5-foot-4, 118 pounds of him — of whom one opponent declared, “Guarding him was like playing a mosquito. You’d be lucky to see where he was, and if you tried to move in on him, you’d hear a buzz. That’s how you could tell he dribbled by.”

Or the great Nat Holman, who at age 12 was playing against, and beating, grown men, and who later won fame as a mainstay of the Original Celtics and a coach of national champions at CCNY. The child of Russian immigrants, the man dubbed “Mr. Basketball” became the sport’s greatest proselytizer, teaching the nuances of the game to young players and coaches in countries throughout the world, including Japan, Turkey, Taiwan, and Israel.

By the early 1960s, however, none of us kids playing schoolyard basketball in Brooklyn were cognizant of the rich contributions of Hebrews to the history of hoops. In Borough Park — mostly lower-middle-class Jews and Italians then, before the influx of Bobov khasids — we played on a concrete court at P.S. 131, with clanging metal hoops naked of netting and backboards always slightly askew. Shots that would have been perfect swishes in a gym would rattle the rim and pop out with a frustrating frequency. And while we were dimly aware of the occasional Jewish college star (Art Heyman at Duke; Barry Kramer at NYU), our role models — the guys we fantasized being in our pickup games — were the new black stars who were pioneering the modern game, in which the laws of gravity would be obviated as human bodies attained the hang-time of helicopters.

 

THAT SOARING, high-scoring game, and the flat-footed version of it we played in the schoolyard, were vastly different from the one that took root at neighborhood YMHAs in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. Back then, only a few years removed from the game’s nativity in a Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA, players did not take jump shots; indeed, they rarely left their feet, except to snag a rebound. Playing arenas were often encircled by chicken wire, and a ball hitting the wire was still in play. It was a game, as Rosen recounts, that relied on “quick thinking, rapidity of movement, and endurance,” and especially passing the ball to the open man. Urban Jews, who were effectively barred from playing baseball or football by the lack of public playing fields on the Lower East Side and other areas with heavy concentrations of Jewish immigrants, and who were locked out of private clubs that maintained such athletic facilities, took to the hyperactive indoor game, which rewarded the ability to think fast, and quickly began to excel at it.

Rosen — a former professional player, friend and colleague of Hall of Fame coach Phil Jackson, and author of a gontzer megillah’s worth of books on basketball (including The House of Moses All-Stars, a novel about the oddball odyssey of an all-Jewish barnstorming team in the midst of the Depression) — provides full-court coverage in his extensively researched history. Along the way, he rescues many contributors, events, and characters from obscurity, threading them through a lively narrative that makes for good reading as well as good scholarship.

One pertinent question he addresses is why Jews today are so conspicuously absent from NBA courts, when over the first half of the last century there were enough great Jewish players to comprise a minyan many times over? Rosen interviews Barry Kramer, the former New York University basketball star and current New York Supreme Court justice, who provides one plausible answer: “When we were both kids, Charley, there was always a playground or a schoolyard basketball court within a short walk. So we played ball whenever we could . . . But these kids nowadays have computers and iPods, and they need to be transported to play any kind of sport. Only in the inner cities are there basketball courts as readily available as they used to be for us.”

At present, there is only one Jew among the roughly five hundred players in the NBA. Born in Holon, a city just south of Tel Aviv, to Moroccan-Jewish parents, Omri Casspi is an Israeli citizen who currently plays for the Golden State Warriors. In 2015, playing for the Sacramento Kings, he organized a trip to the Holy Land for several of his teammates and a few other pros. Although Casspi’s motives were benign — the trip featured a pair of basketball clinics for an integrated group of Israeli and Palestinian youths — the visit predictably caught flak, mainly due to the involvement of rightwing ideologue Sheldon Adelson, who provided the American hoopers with a chartered jet. Critics charged that Adelson and Casspi had organized the trip in response to a Palestinian-funded boycott of Israel that was in place at the time. For his part, Casspi denied that politics had any part in his expedition, and that his sole aim was to steer Palestinian and Israeli kids toward mutual respect and understanding by having them engage on the basketball court.

 

DESPITE THE DEARTH of Hebrew hoopers in today’s game, Jews have always been a presence in the sport’s executive echelons, and remain so in the third millennium. With thirty years on the job, David Stern was the NBA’s longest-tenured commissioner. He was followed by his deputy, Adam Silver, the present man in charge, who made headlines last September when he publicly supported the decision of the world champion Warriors to spurn an invitation to meet Donald Trump in the White House. But since the mid-1950s, the largest concentration of Jews in the basketball biz has been in the realm of franchise ownership; nearly half of the current owners of NBA clubs are Jewish or of Jewish descent. (Alas, some of them have been real momsers, like the former owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, Donald Sterling — born Donald Tokowitz — who was banned from the league for life after recordings of his vitriolic, racist comments were made public.)

Unfortunately, the presence of so many Jewish franchise owners has provided fodder for antisemites. Rosen cites a screed (unsigned, of course — these people are so brave) on the Race Rules blogsite titled, “The Complete Infestation of the NBA by Jews,” which concludes, after much hateful huffing and puffing, “These owners are the subhumans destroying the world and the players are okay with it as long as they get paid just like Hollywood stars and just like the federal government and most likely just like you for your paycheck.” As cogently argued positions go, not exactly a slam dunk.

Some of the ground covered in The Chosen Game has been treated by other writers. But where Rosen gains an edge is in his singular perspective as a former professional player and coach. Throughout, he seeds the book with “testimonies” — personally conducted interviews with many of his subjects, some of whom he played with or against, all of whom speak very candidly, eschewing the usual bland clichés. Neal Walk, who suffered paralysis shortly after his pro career and was later named Wheelchair Athlete of the Year, relates that he was presented with a plaque by the first President Bush at a White House ceremony: “It was a bullshit honor. There were plenty of wheelchair hoopers who were much better than me, but since I was a well-known NBA veteran, giving me the award generated an inordinate amount of publicity.” And Ed Roman, who played for Nat Holman at CCNY and was caught up in the point-shaving scandals of 1951, takes a hammer to the pedestal of the great Holman by remembering him as a “narcissistic bastard. . . . He never gave us credit when we played well. He cursed us in his phony English accent. He screamed. He scapegoated like crazy. He didn’t even know our names.”

Rosen, however, remembers their names: the three Jews — Ed Roman, Irwin Dambrot, and Fatty Roth — and the two African Americans, Floyd Layne and Ed Warner, who led CCNY to the unprecedented feat of winning both the NCAA and NIT tournaments in the the 1949-50 season. And in The Chosen Game, he remembers the names and rekindles the glory of hundreds of Jewish kings of the hardwood court, most of whom never got to see the sport they once dominated, in claustrophobic cages and scruffy schoolyards, attain its media-saturated, megabillion-dollar global reach.

 

Mikhail Horowitz, our contributing writer, last appeared here with “Tales of the Khasidic Jazz Masters.”  He is a performance artist and poet, the creator of Big League Poets (City Lights, 1978), and two CDs and a DVD with Gilles Malkine: Live, Jive & Over 45 (2000), Poor, On Tour, & Over 54 (2007), and Too Small to Fail (2011).