In the introduction to their recently published Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame, Franklin Foer and Marc Tracy hyperbolically describe American basketball between the world wars as a “majority-owned subsidiary of New York Jewish culture.”
Eight of the 50 essays in the anthology are devoted to basketball players, coaches or owners, and six of them learned the game on the playgrounds of New York City: Dolph Schayes, Red Auerbach, Red Holzman, Barney Sedran, Nancy Lieberman and Jack Molinas. The other two are Tamir Goodman, a wildly hyped yeshiva player in the late 1990s from suburban Baltimore, and Mark Cuban, the hyperventilating owner of the Dallas Mavericks who grew up in suburban Pittsburgh.
Tracy’s essay is devoted to Schayes, a graduate of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx and New York University, which played its games at the school’s (defunct) Bronx campus and Madison Square Garden. The 84-year-old hall of fame player modestly tells Tracy: “I grew up in New York City, which was populated by many Jews. That was the game of choice. I was just part of the group that was playing.”
Indeed, the passion that New York City Jewish male teenagers had for basketball, during the first eight decades of the 20th century, is further demonstrated by the overlooked fact that two baseball and one football hall of famers profiled in Jewish Jocks – Hank Greenberg (James Monroe HS, 1929 city champions), Sandy Koufax (Lafayette HS) and Al Davis (Erasmus Hall HS) – also played basketball in New York City’s Public Schools Athletic League.
Founded in 1903, the PSAL has been the training ground of more pro hoops players than any other scholastic league in America. While eleven Jewish-Americans profiled in the Foer-Tracy collection played various sports in the PSAL, including hall of fame quarterback Sid Luckman and broadcaster Howard Cosell, none of the book’s 50 contributors evinces the slightest awareness of this crucial history.
Though I met Schayes in 1977 when I tried out – unsuccessfully – for the Maccabi team and he was the coach, and though I was familiar with his fabulous NBA career with the old Syracuse Nationals, I didn’t know at the time that he was a fellow Bronxite. I also didn’t know, even though my mother attended NYU between 1941 and 1944, that the school’s 1945 team lost the NCAA championship game to Oklahoma A&M. A perusal of the box score reveals that Schayes and NYU’s other Jewish star, Sid Tanenbaum (who came out of Brooklyn hoops powerhouse Thomas Jefferson HS), combined for a measly 10 points.
That same summer of 1977, when I was a graduate student at Columbia’s Graduate School of the Arts (concentrating on nonfiction writing), I ended my basketball career, having played professionally in Sweden, Switzerland and Israel (Betar Jerusalem).
Though I didn’t make it to Madison Square Garden as a player, I managed this feat as a coach. During my first full year of teaching in the New York City public high schools in 1990-91, I volunteered to help coach South Shore HS in Brooklyn, and the team reached the PSAL championship game at the Garden. We lost to Brooklyn’s Lincoln High School, a perennial powerhouse.
Looking at the old program, I see that the same evening we lost to Lincoln, Nancy Lieberman-Cline was inducted into the PSAL Hall of Fame. In Jewish Jocks, ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz has a wonderful profile of Lieberman, a female basketball pioneer. However, he never mentions that she starred at Far Rockaway HS in Queens before attending Old Dominion in Virginia. Arnovitz does note that she led her university to two NCAA titles.
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I didn’t become a basketball historian until April 1996, when the NCAA title game was played at the Meadowlands, a few miles from midtown Manhattan, and I wrote an op-ed for The New York Daily News about the forgotten Texas Western 1966 NCAA championship team.
Subsequently, sportswriter Frank Fitzpatrick published And the Walls Came Tumbling Down: Kentucky, Texas Western and the Game That Changed American Sports and Hollywood produced a film, “Glory Road,” about the team.
The historic victory by Texas Western, which featured seven black players against an all-white Kentucky team starring Pat Riley, shattered apartheid in college sports in the South. Three of Texas Western’s players – Willie Worsley (DeWitt Clinton) and Nevil Shed and Willie Cager (Morris HS) had played their high school ball in the Bronx.