Film Examines Court Jews Who Dominated Basketball

By Ethan Porter

Published November 26, 2004, issue of November 26, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

In Miami there are men whose memories burn with images of athletic glory long-relegated to private collections of black-and-white news reels — images of swooping majestic passes back and forth, baskets swishing with grace, running up and down a court of giants. These men possess the story of how Jewish Americans, most of them the children of immigrants, virtually dominated the game of basketball in the 1940s and laid the groundwork for the worldwide cultural phenomenon that is today’s National Basketball Association.

For the past three years, David Vyorst has devoted his life to crafting a documentary film about these trailblazers and their progeny. Vyorst’s work-in-progress film, “The First Basket,” traces the history of Jews in basketball through interviews with Jewish greats past and present like Sonny Hertzberg, Ossie Schectman, David Stern and Red Auerbach, as well as the exhaustive excavation of private highlight collections. The title of the film is no obtuse metaphor; in 1946, Ossie Schectman did indeed score the first basket of the Basketball Association of America, which later evolved into the NBA.

“To them, basketball was the greatest thing in the world,” Vyorst said. “When they talk about their basketball memories, their faces light up.” The Jews who played in this primordial incarnation of professional basketball perfected their skill as teenagers for teams based out of synagogue centers, YMHAs and settlement houses, for leagues based in New York City and along the Borscht Belt. When they weren’t playing on real courts, they were playing in the streets, transforming fire escapes into makeshift hoops and using rolled-up laundry as basketballs. Colleges were stocked with Jewish players, as well — even St. John’s proved to be no exception. In one memorable instance, the St. John’s coach prepared to lead the team in a Christian pre-game prayer, before looking around and realizing that his entire starting five was Jewish.

The players were targets of antisemitism, though not as frequently as one might imagine. “They dealt with it mano a mano, by punching a guy in the nose,” explained Yeshiva University’s Professor Jeffrey Gurock, the film’s chief academic adviser. At times, opponents would pull and push at their noses, and crowds would label spectacular plays merely products of Jewish trickery. Sportswriters got in on the act, too, declaring that the game naturally fit the Jew’s duplicitous nature. However, Gurock asserts that on the whole, the antisemitism was rather muted.

Plus, as Hank Rosenstein, a Knicks player in the 1940s, told Vyorst, “Basketball was our religion.” Other players interviewed by Vyorst echoed this sentiment. The best players came to play, not to learn about Judaism. Nevertheless, the game engendered camaraderie among the Jewish players. This seemingly paradoxical relationship, in which Jews came to play and become American but became more Jewish just as they were becoming more American, cuts to the essence of what basketball meant to postwar Jewish America. “It’s a very American game, and yet it’s a transition game,” Vyorst explained. Thus, basketball was a means of assimilating into the society while simultaneously preserving and even enlarging one’s Jewish heritage. As Gurock sees it, once Jews migrated out of the inner city and into the suburbs, thereby completing the transition, the quality of Jewish play declined precipitously. “Basketball is essentially an inner-city game,” Vyorst said.

“The First Basket,” due to be completed this upcoming winter, will likely not cause a reverse migration from the suburbs back to the city. But as Vyorst noted jokingly, Jewish parents always will be accepting of their children’s basketball aspirations — just so long as it doesn’t interfere with medical school.






Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.