Jewish players are rare in the National Basketball Association these days, but this wasn’t always the case. For the 1946-47 season (the first for the Basketball Association of America, the precursor to the NBA), the New York Knickerbockers had several Jewish players. Indeed, on November 1, 1946, Ossie Schectman, one of those players, made the first basket ever scored in the BAA.
Philadelphia SPHA basketball team, 1922
The First Basket, a new documentary, takes its name from Schechtman’s pioneering hoop. David Vyorst’s film (screening dates are available here) highlights the seminal role Jews played in basketball’s development. In the first half of the 20th century, Jewish institutions sponsoredf teams that featured top players: One of the most famous was known as the SPHAs, named for its affiliation with the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, a social club. Even after World War II, not only were a lot of the players Jewish, but Jewish coaches and owners loomed large both in teaching the game and increasing its appeal to a mass audience.
If Jews influenced basketball, the game also eased Jewish acculturation. Settlement houses encouraged Jews to play basketball because social reformers saw it as a way to Americanize the younger immigrant generation. As the film’s interviews make clear, the kids were receptive to the game, even if their parents weren’t. The older generation “didn’t know much about basketball. They thought it was always a goyische type of game,” says Bernie Fliegel, who played at CCNY in the late 1930s and later played professionally.
How and when did you first learn about Ossie Schectman, who scored the first basket that inspired the title of the film?
In about 1996—it was the 50th anniversary of the NBA and there were all these media specials and radio specials celebrating the anniversary. And a few of them inevitably went back and looked at the first game. I heard one radio interview with the guys from the 46 Knicks and they were a bunch of old Jewish guys living in Florida. And it completely blew my mind.
Why is it important to tell this story?
It’s a good story to me because not only does it include that “Hey, I didn’t know that” moment when you learn that all of these great pioneering basketball players were Jewish, and that Jewish players really shaped the game and had a profound influence on the game, but to me what’s really interesting is the flip side of this: basketball and sports are an amazingly important part of American Jewish social history. The importance of the game in the settlement houses, the importance of the game in the early-20th-century Jewish communities, the ways that Jewish institutions were first reticent toward the game and then embraced it as a way to bring Jewish kids in—to me that’s where the rubber hits the road.
Many of the film’s more recent basketball subjects are coaches or owners. How did Jews shape both the way the game was played and the way it was sold to the public?
To me, the game that the Jewish people developed required a lot of teamwork and playing strong defense. The game that developed in Jewish neighborhoods and the game that people like Red Holzman later taught was a team game. It was five guys working together.
Lately, in some places, the game has become more individualistic. Teams that play as a team, like the San Antonio Spurs, will end up winning. And I think those are Jewish values—everybody looking out for one another, to me, is an intrinsic and very important Jewish value.
You make a pretty good case that basketball, an urban game, has indeed been the Jewish sport in the United States. But in Jewish circles baseball has gotten more attention. Do you think that’s because there’s never been a basketball version of Sandy Koufax?
If you ask people from our parents’ generation, they will tell you basketball was much bigger in the Jewish community than baseball. I don’t think there’s an individual star like a Sandy Koufax or a Hank Greenberg who carries on to this day, but for people in Jewish communities in the 30s and 40s, basketball had a much more profound influence. There was no national basketball league, there was the National and the American League and Major League Baseball existing on a national level long before the NBA did. So there were national baseball heroes when basketball heroes were predominantly local.
It was fascinating to learn about the college basketball point-shaving scandals.
The college scandals in 1951 had a great impact on the game. And they had a huge impact on the future of basketball and Jews in basketball. It was at that time that the NBA became more popular and college basketball was largely discredited. Although schools around the country were involved, the New York City schools took the brunt of the heat. Before the scandals, New York City schools dominated college basketball—schools like LIU, NYU, CCNY, that were largely Jewish and black teams. Many of these schools closed down their basketball teams or their teams were largely de-emphasized. It’s after 1951 that you see the rise of other schools like Carolina and Duke.
The scandals have roots in the Catskills, right? Gamblers got in touch with players who were working summer jobs at Jewish resorts.
People don’t know that the Catskills were a mecca of college basketball. All of the top players spent their summers there—they’d have jobs there and play basketball. But the Catskills had always attracted a lot of shady characters. The gamblers figured out that all the best basketball players were there. It started out where they would have these pools. People would bet on the games. It originally started with the chefs. And the players would fix it so the chefs would win, so they would get free meals.
Why did you end the film by focusing on the Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv?
A lot of people have questioned that, and the breakdown is interesting. People in the film industry tend to think it doesn’t fit in, and Jewish film festival audiences go crazy and love it. I didn’t know how big basketball was in Israel and how they’ve dominated European play. In general, I don’t know how you could tell a story about basketball and the Jewish people without examining basketball in the Jewish nation. Basketball is huge in Israel and a point of national pride, and Maccabi Tel Aviv has won five European championships.
You argue in the film that basketball became less of a Jewish game due, in part, to suburbanization. There’s certainly been a paucity of Jewish players in the NBA in recent years, although Jordan Farmar is now in the NBA with the Lakers and Shay Doron, an Israeli, is on the WNBA’s New York Liberty. Do you think there will be any future Jewish (maybe Israeli) stars in the NBA in the future?
I think you will see an Israeli player in the NBA in the very near future and I think you will see Jewish players once again. In recent years, you’ve seen a globalization of the game—players from Eastern Europe, Spain, Argentina, China in the NBA. One of the great things about basketball is that it transcends borders.