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August 27, 2014 / 1 Elul, 5774
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Court Jews: Pro Basketball’s Forgotten History


Mention the names Leo Gottlieb, Sid Hertzberg, Ossie Schectman, Ralph Kaplowitz, Nat Milotzok and Hank Rosenstein, and the image that probably comes to mind is that of the board of directors of a Florida retirement village rather than half the roster of the 1946-47 New York Knickerbockers basketball team.

But Knicks they were, during the team’s inaugural season in the old Basketball Association of America (BAA), one of two leagues whose eventual merger created the National Basketball Association.

The Knicks won their first-ever game, defeating the Toronto Huskies 68-66 at Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto. “Most of the fans in Toronto were pretty nice,” recalls Ralph Kaplowitz in Garden Glory, Dennis D’Agastino’s oral history of the Knicks, “but some of them kept yelling ‘Abe! Abe! Abe! Throw the ball to Abe!’ You know, sort of mocking the Jewish people. Of course, we ignored it. But you can’t help remembering that this is what went on.”

That first Knicks team was, it must be admitted, something of an exception — other teams had Jews on their rosters but not nearly in those numbers, and within a season or two the Knicks themselves were down to just a couple of Jewish players. Still, it was not uncommon in that era for a typical game between two professional teams to feature three or four Jews on the court.

Big-Time Presence, Small-Time Sport

While recognizing a major Jewish presence in the early years of a popular big-time sport would make for a nice story, it’s important to understand at the outset that, in this case, the premise is only half true: The Jewish presence was indeed considerable, but professional basketball was hardly a popular big-time sport in the 1940`s and 50`s.

The arenas were third rate or worse, the college game had all the tradition and prestige, and the pro teams played in cities — Sheboygan, Fort Wayne, Providence — not exactly known for their cosmopolitan allure.

Actually, a case can be made that the NBA remained a small-time concern well into the mid-1980`s, at which point the league finally managed to polish its image thanks to the marketing savvy of newly-appointed commissioner David Stern and the fortuitous emergence of a bumper crop of talented young stars.

Evidence abounds of the NBA’s poor-cousin status in the pre-Stern era, but all one needs to know is that in those years the games of the league’s championship series were routinely televised late at night on a tape-delay basis. In the eyes of advertisers and network executives, the NBA was definitely not ready for prime time.

Consider also that the incomparable Boston Celtics teams of the 1950`s and 60`s (11 championships in 13 years, including eight straight), run by cigar-chomping, Brooklyn-born Arnold (Red) Auerbach, almost never sold out their home arena; and that even the Knicks, playing in basketball-crazy New York, were carried on local radio only sporadically until the mid-1960`s and actually endured two complete seasons (1960-61 and 1963-64) when no radio station in town would broadcast any of their games.

But even in its most difficult years the National Basketball Association was a vast improvement over its predecessors. Prior to the formation in 1946 of the Basketball Association of America, pro basketball had been a strictly regional and cash-strapped concern, barely making it from one season to the next, showcased in such ramshackle vehicles as the Eastern League, the American Basketball League (comprised of teams from the East and Northeast) and the National Basketball League (based in the Midwest).

Nevertheless, the game in those early decades of the century was dominated by Jewish players, most of them second-generation Americans who’d grown up on the basketball courts of cities like Philadelphia and New York; players with names like Jammy Moskowitz, Moe Goldman, Harry Litwack, Max Friedman, Barney Sedran and Nat Holman.

There was no shortage of explanations, many of them less than sagacious, for this phenomenon. In 1937, New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico, reflecting the casual anti-Semitism prevalent at the time, wrote: “The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.”

A similar, if more carefully worded, view was expressed by Stanley Frank in his 1936 book The Jew in Sport. Basketball, wrote Frank, called on “the characteristics inherent in the Jew…mental agility, perception…imagination and subtlety.”

“If the Jew,” Frank continued, “had set out deliberately to invent a game which incorporates those traits indigenous in him…he could not have had a happier inspiration than basketball.”

The early dominance of Jewish players had already begun to fade by the time the original Knicks took the court, and by the late 1940`s the number of Jews in the pro ranks was in a state of irreversible decline. Even so, there were still enough Jewish players around during the next decade or so to constitute something more than a mere ethnic oddity.

Players like Max Zaslofsky, a well-traveled veteran who was the Knicks’ leading scorer during the 1951-52 season (and who fifteen years later would be hired as the first coach of the American Basketball Association’s New Jersey Americans, forerunners of the present-day New Jersey Nets).

Players like William (Red) Holzman, a veteran of three professional leagues – the NBL, the BAA and the NBA – whose name will always be synonymous not with great ball-playing but with outstanding coaching, specifically the job he did with the Knicks teams of the late 1960`s through the mid-70`s. The only two championships the Knicks have won came with Holzman at the helm (1969-70 and 1972-73).

And players like the greatest Jewish one of them all, the hard-driving forward Dolph Schayes, one of the most accurate free-throw shooters of his time who led the old Syracuse Nationals (now the Philadelphia 76ers) in scoring for 13 consecutive seasons, from 1948-49 through 1960-61.

Following his playing days, Schayes embarked on a coaching career with mixed results, leading the 76ers to a division title in 1965-66 but lasting fewer than two full seasons with the expansion Buffalo Braves (now the Los Angeles Clippers) in the early 1970`s. Between his two coaching stints Schayes served as supervisor of referees for the NBA, overseeing such colorful Jewish refs as Mendy Rudolph, Earl Strom and Norm Drucker.

Off-Court Influence

If it seems like an eternity since Jewish players were a familiar sight on NBA courts, there’s good reason: by the time Dolph Schayes hung up his sneakers for good he was already one of the last of a dying breed — and that was more than four decades ago.

The feeling that an era had passed was reflected in a public lament by Haskell Cohen, who was both the NBA’s publicist and a Jewish Telegraphic Agency columnist. “Let’s face it folks,” he wrote in 1971, “there just aren’t any good Jewish basketball players around anymore.”

Cohen was right, of course, and the reason was hardly a mystery: As Jews moved away from the large cities, they left behind the community-center leagues that had been the training ground for Jewish players.

“They moved to the suburbs,” explained Red Auerbach, “and in the suburbs, even though you had basketball courts on your playgrounds, for some reason or other they’d go to the beaches, they’d go sailing, and they’d play golf. All of a sudden they found out that there were other things than being a ‘gym rat.’ ”

Nevertheless, a handful of Jews did buck the trend. Standing out among those who made it to the pro ranks from the late 1960′s on (all of them now long retired) were the eccentric Art Heyman, whose exploits on and off the court helped enliven the upstart American Basketball Association in the late 1960′s; Neal Walk, whose claim to fame was that he was the college player picked by the Phoenix Suns in 1969 after they’d lost a coin flip for Lew Alcindor – who went on to become one of the NBA’s all-time greats under the name Kareem Abdul Jabbar; Ernie Grunfeld, a future Knicks general manager who as a player never came close to fulfilling the expectations of his high school and college days; and Danny Schayes, Dolph’s son and probably the best of the aforementioned lot.

The disappearance of Jews from the ranks of NBA players is now complete, but the fact is, even way back in the golden era of players named Leo and Max and Nate and Sid, the Jewish influence on the game was greater off the court than on, as it remains today.

That Jewish influence may have been symbolized by the NBA’s first commissioner, Maurice Podoloff, but it was personified in Eddie Gottlieb, an immigrant from Kiev who organized the Basketball Association of America in 1946 and helped create the modern NBA by merging the BAA with the National Basketball League in 1949. He also owned, and for a few years even coached, the old Philadelphia (now Golden State) Warriors, and after selling the team in 1962 became the NBA’s official schedule maker until his death in 1979.

Gottlieb, whose involvement with basketball went back to 1918 and his founding of an all-Jewish amateur (eventually semipro) team named the SPHAs (for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), was called “the brains of the league” by sportswriter Leonard Koppett.

Gottleib, wrote Koppett, “knew the game, how to sell tickets, how to get the arena cleaned, how to promote, how to sign up talent like Wilt Chamberlain.”

Gottlieb often would reminisce about the anti-Semitism his team faced from both fans and officials when it played on the road. “The toughest place,” he said, “was Prospect Hall, the home of the Brooklyn Visitations. They used to have a balcony that hung over the court, and they’d serve the fans bottle beer and sandwiches. Whenever something would happen down on the court that those Brooklyn fans didn’t like, they’d send those bottles down at us.”

Later in his life Gottlieb amazed those who knew him with his mastery of the complicated process of putting together a schedule for an entire league. He did that by “stuffing his pockets with little notes that he got from all the teams about when they did and did not want to play at home,” explained Dolph Schayes. “One year, the league had a computer company work on the schedule and they also had Eddie do it. When both were finished, the company admitted that it could not put together the schedule as well as Gottlieb did.”

Another colorful owner in the NBA’s formative era was Ben Kerner, who owned the Milwaukee (later the St. Louis and now Atlanta) Hawks. Like Gottlieb and most of the league’s other founding owners, Kerner’s financial fortunes were tied exclusively to the success or failure of his team. “I couldn’t afford to pay my players a lot of money,” he once reminisced. “Back then, the NBA was a hand-to-mouth operation. Basketball was my only business. I had to watch every penny. I could afford to give [the players] cars and nice dinners, but I couldn’t pay high salaries.”

Kerner was an owner who wore his heart on his sleeve during games, rooting hard for his team and fiercely berating opposing players and the referees. Also getting into the act was Kerner’s elderly mother. “She wouldn’t like one of your calls,” recalled Norm Drucker, “and she’d yell in her Yiddish accent, ‘You [so-and-so], this vill be the last game you vork in the NBA!”

Kerner, it should be noted, was the man who fired Red Holzman a decade and a half before Holzman assumed legendary status as coach of the Knicks, but the owner can hardly be faulted for that decision: Proving the old adage that a coach is only as good as his players, Holzman compiled a losing record with the Hawks over a four-year period (two full seasons and parts of two others).

Finally, no look back at the Jewish contribution to pro basketball would be complete without acknowledging the pioneering radio voices of Marty Glickman with the Knicks (when the home team scored Glickman would famously exult – plugging the chain of hot dog and orange drink outlets that sponsored the broadcasts – “It’s good, like Nedicks!”) and Johnny Most (originally Moskowitz) with the Boston Celtics. Glickman and Most led the way for Bill Mazer, Marv Albert (followed by brothers Steve and Al), Spencer Ross, and other Jews who would achieve national prominence in pro basketball broadcast booths.

After all these years the NBA still has a considerable Jewish presence, but more than ever it’s one found almost exclusively among writers, broadcasters and owners – the latter category including, but hardly limited to, Micky Arison (Miami Heat), Steve Belkin (Atlanta Hawks), Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks), William Davidson (Detroit Pistons), Abe Pollin (Washington Wizards), Bruce Ratner (New Jersey Nets) and Jerry Reinsdorf (Chicago Bulls).

As we’ve seen, however, the story could not be more different when it comes to those who actually play the game. The time when basketball was, in the words of historian Peter Levine, “so dominated by Jews that some called it the Jewish game” has all but vanished into the misty province of faded photographs and grainy newsreels, as the sepia-toned memories die one by one along with those who lived them.

About the Author: Jason Maoz is the Senior Editor of The Jewish Press.


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