When Bas­ket­ball Was Jewish

  • Review
By – May 16, 2017

While there are few pro­fes­sion­al Jew­ish bas­ket­ball play­ers today, bas­ket­ball was once called a Jew­ish sport. Invent­ed in Spring­field, MA at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, urban, immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties of the North­east were a cen­tral address for this rel­a­tive­ly easy to learn and inex­pen­sive pas­time. When Bas­ket­ball was Jew­ish is author Dou­glas Stark’s sec­ond book on the his­to­ry of Jews in bas­ket­ball. In twen­ty inter­views, many orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in oth­er archives or pub­li­ca­tions, Stark chron­i­cles the lives of Jew­ish play­ers from 1900 to 1960. Each biog­ra­phy begins with a brief intro­duc­tion by the author, includes a pho­to­graph, and fol­lows with an oral tes­ti­mo­ny by the play­er himself.

An inter­view with Nat Hol­man opens the col­lec­tion. Hol­man, a cen­tral fig­ure in the his­to­ry of the sport, influ­enced the careers of many Jew­ish play­ers. His inter­view, like the oth­ers, is a mix of anec­dotes about basketball’s ear­ly years, how Jews got involved in the sport, and how his par­tic­i­pa­tion influ­enced his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty. After retir­ing at the age of thir­ty-two, Hol­man was select­ed by the Nine­ty-Sec­ond Street YMHA (today known as the 92nd Street Y) to be its first direc­tor of a new­ly estab­lished Depart­ment of Health and Phys­i­cal Hygiene. He also served as the pres­i­dent of the U.S. Com­mit­tee for Sports in Israel; the gym of Israel’s Wingate Insti­tute for Phys­i­cal Edu­ca­tion, an Olympic train­ing facil­i­ty, is named for him. He was induct­ed into the U.S. Bas­ket­ball Hall of Fame in 1964.

The final inter­view is with Dolph Schayes, who had a six­teen-year career with the Syra­cuse Nation­als and its suc­ces­sor, the Philadel­phia 76ers. He grad­u­at­ed from New York Uni­ver­si­ty with an engi­neer­ing degree but had already helped NYU reach the NCAA final as a fresh­man. When asked about his career path, Schayes’s moth­er shared that her son was plan­ning to be a pro­fes­sion­al bas­ket­ball play­er, but as Schayes recalls, his aunt did not see this as an appro­pri­ate career for a nice Jew­ish boy.” After twen­ty-four years, it real­ly became a pret­ty good job. I was very proud, because at that time I was prob­a­bly the youngest mem­ber of the Bas­ket­ball Hall of Fame.”

When Bas­ket­ball was Jew­ish is more than a sports record. As Stark writes in his intro­duc­tion, these essays demon­strate that bas­ket­ball was part and par­cel of how the coun­try was shaped in the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.” They show that Jews were very much a part of this process. Their sto­ries are the sto­ry of bas­ket­ball. Their sto­ries are the search for an Amer­i­can game. Their sto­ries are the quest for an Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty.” Both Jew­ish his­to­ry and bas­ket­ball enthu­si­asts will enjoy this fas­ci­nat­ing record of Amer­i­can Jew­ish life and its impact on Amer­i­can sport.

Jonathan Fass is the Man­ag­ing Direc­tor of Edu­ca­tion­al Tech­nol­o­gy and Strat­e­gy at The Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion Project of New York.

Discussion Questions