How The Jews “Invented” Basketball

In the first possession of the first-ever professional basketball game, the ball never seemed to touch the court.

It was Nov. 1, 1946, and the New York Knickerbockers were taking on the Toronto Huskies in the debut of the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to today’s NBA. Seconds into the game, Ossie Schectman, wearing the short shorts and canvas sneakers of the day, got possession of the ball and headed up court with teammates Stan Stutz, Ralph Kaplowitz, Jake Weber and Leo “Ace”? Gottlieb -five Jews playing a version of the game that transformed basketball at the time, and that no longer exists.

Schectman dribbled once and deftly passed to his teammate on the right. That man took one step and passed the ball over Schectman’s head to the guard on the far left side of the court. In a classic give-and-go, the guard instantly returned the ball to Schectman as he charged toward the basket for an effortless-looking underhanded layup.

“They score a clean first basket,” the sportscaster said. “Dazzling passing.”

Schectman, from Kew Gardens, scored the first bucket for the fledgling BAA as the Knickberbockers went on to beat the Huskies, 68-66. Those two points the wiry 6-foot guard from Tilden High School scored 60 years ago are now the lead-in for a fascinating documentary, “The First Basket,” which traces Jewish involvement in the game from Lower East Side tenements to the present day.

“It’s not just that Jewish players were instrumental in the evolution of basketball, but basketball was an important part of Jews’ evolution as Americans,” said David Vyorst, creator and executive producer of the documentary. “To me, most Jewish books or movies on Jewish participation in whatever, tend to be Hall of Fame tributes, great Jews in comedy or music, but what is more important to me is the flip side, what basketball is and what it had to do with Jews becoming Americans.”

Nearly 10 years in the making, “The First Basket” is the first documentary to chronicle Jews’ role in basketball. Peter Riegert, of “Animal House” and “The Sopranos” fame, narrates. Cuban-born jazz composer Roberto Juan Rodriguez who made a name for himself infusing Jewish music with Latin themes provides an original klezmer-inspired soundtrack.

Vyorst said he is scrambling to secure last-minute financing for final production and that the film will premiere here early next year. “We are desperately searching for finishing funds to license all the footage,” he said.

The footage unearthed by a research team that included veterans of Ric Burns’ documentaries, is, indeed, stirring.

In addition to Schectman’s first basket and the early pro games, found in the archives are games from the 1920s at Jewish settlement homes and even some schoolyard pickup games where the future stars honed their skills. The footage is from an era before Hank Luisetti brought the jump shot east from California, when a slam dunk was inconceivable and two-handed, between-the-legs underhanded shots were common.

The semi-pro games of the South Philadelphia Hebrew All Stars, who wore Hebrew lettering on their jerseys, are also caught on film in all their barnstorming glory.

Vyorst, a Washington, D.C., public relations consultant who grew up a Knicks fan in Great Neck, L.I., got the idea for the film after he heard a National Public Radio report on the South Florida Basketball Fraternity in 1997.

The fraternity is actually a monthly coffee klatch for retired guys with names like Max Cohn, Nat Frankel and Sid Gerchick – all former pro or college basketball players – who meet to reminisce about their time on the court.

These men, now in their 70s and 80s, are comfortable in front of the camera and share their stories of a time when Jews dominated the court.

Schectman himself, who made a career in the garment industry, is part of the klatch and tells on camera his own stories of those early years. “I had a very good night,” he said, recalling that first game in ’46. “It’s kept my name alive.”

All the men fondly tell stories of sneaking out of the house to play ball in closed schoolyards as their parents implore them to study or go to shul.

Former South Philadelphia Hebrew All Stars player Jerry Fleishman recalls slipping out of the house to play ball as his parents called the sport a “goyishe type of game.”

Years later they’d recall playing before thousands of fans at Madison Square Garden.

“There are very American themes that appeal to universal audiences,” Vyorst said. “It’s a story of 20th-century America. Poor immigrant kids from tenement houses playing with ash cans to becoming the second most popular sport in the world.”

But basketball wasn’t just a way for the children of immigrants to become Americans. Synagogues started sporting their own teams as a way to keep Jews coming to shul. At the same time, secular organizations – like settlement houses and trade unions for Jewish garment workers – sported teams.

As the game picked up popularity nationwide it wasn’t lost on the country that Jews were dominating the game. Pro players recalled anti-Semitic taunts and even a fistfight or two.

New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote in the 1930s that basketball “appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartalecness.”

Jews did change the game. Early in basketball’s history, players were much more aggressive. They charged into each left and right. When they got the ball, they shot. Once young Jewish players got into the picture, however, they emphasized ball-handling, dribbling, passing, give-and-goes and the all-important feint. Outperformed rivals called it “Jewball.”

“If I did something, they said it was a dirty Jewish trick,” former Knickerbocker Sonny Hertzberg recalls. “One punch would straighten things out.”

The documentary is full of other pieces of forgotten history.

While the Borscht Belt had once been a proving ground for a generation of entertainers, it was also where some of the best basketball was being played. During the summer season – off-season for pro-ball players – the best of the best went to the Catskills to compete in informal league games.

The film then focuses on the one man who worked to make basketball what it is today: Nat Holman, aka “Mr. Basketball.” Holman, a child of Russian Jewish immigrants, played pro ball and then became the champion coach of City College. He led his team to win the “grand slam” of college basketball – the National Collegiate Athletic Association and National Invitation Tournament titles in 1950s. No school has achieved that since.

“He is a pivotal figure,” Vyorst said. “One of the great patriarchs of the game. He’s like Babe Ruth to basketball and one of the most influential coaches.”

Domination by Jewish players in basketball quickly waned in the 1960s – an event the old players attribute to Jewish families moving to the suburbs. But that didn’t mean Jews had lost interest in the game.

The film follows Holman’s career from City College in the 1950s, to his team’s point-shaving scandal, to Israel where he coached for the national team.

The recently deceased former Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach, famous for his victory cigars and for integrating the team, is another central figure of the film. The Jew from Williamsburg holds the record for leading the Celtics to eight straight championships. Likewise, Nat Holman alum William “Red” Holzman, a fellow New York Jew, coached the Knicks through the 1970s. He racked up a 613 career wins for the team – coincidentally the same number of mitzvot in the Torah.

Today, even if there aren’t Jewish players in the NBA, Israel’s team has done Jews worldwide proud. With some help from African-American imports, the Tel Aviv Maccabi team won the Euroleague championship in 2004.

Meanwhile, David Stern, a Manhattan-born Jew who grew up watching many Jewish greats at Madison Square Garden, is now NBA commissioner.

As much as the game has changed, however, some things are still the same. Vyorst, 46, still plays weekend pickup games at his local Jewish community center.

“They used basketball to draw kids back in then and that’s still going on,” he said. “That’s why my JCC has basketball and I ended up taking Torah classes there.”

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