Ralph Kaplowitz, an original member of the New York Knickerbockers who played in basketball’s first professional game in 1946, died at his home in the Floral Park section of Queens on February 2. He was 89.
According to his daughter, Barbara Kaplowitz, the cause of death was kidney failure. At the age of 27, Kaplowitz was invited to play with the Knickerbockers, better known as the Knicks. The team was then part of the Basketball Association of America, the predecessor to the National Basketball Association. The 6-foot-2-inch, 170-pound guard started in the league’s opening game against the Toronto Huskies. The Knicks, which was then composed of several Jewish players, beat the Huskies 68-66.
“Basketball during his era was really a predominantly Jewish game,” basketball historian Matt Zeysing said.
Even so, Kaplowitz and his fellow Jewish players were not immune to antisemitic taunts. “When they went out of town,” Barbara Kaplowitz said, “they got jeered.”
Born May 18, 1919, Ralph Kaplowitz grew up in the Bronx and spent his days playing basketball with his older brother, who was also an accomplished player. He was a basketball star at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, and then at New York University, before taking a leave for six years to join the Army. During World War II, he was a fighter pilot stationed in the Pacific; after the war, he returned to NYU, where he studied physical education.
Kaplowitz, who was traded to the Philadelphia Warriors in the middle of his first season as a professional player, helped his team win the NBA championship during the 1946–47 season. He retired from the professional sport in 1948. Kaplowitz then returned to New York, where he started a long career in the life insurance industry.
“He was a real gentleman. He never promoted himself or bragged about himself,” his daughter said. “He was loved by a lot of people.”
In October 2000, Kaplowitz was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame.
He is survived by two daughters and one grandson. His wife of 65 years, Norma Kaplowitz, passed away last year.