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.
In the late 1960s I frequently played with Cager and Shed, two genuine gentlemen, at the PS 18 gym in the South Bronx, which was run by Floyd Layne, a star of City College of New York’s ill-fated 1950 NCAA and NIT champions. The CCNY team, composed of Jewish and black players from the PSAL, was the first integrated team to win the national championship. Tragically, most of the team was implicated in the 1951 point-shaving scandal.
In February 1964, when I was a 13-year-old ninth grader and thinking about which high school to attend, I saw Worsley play in a Clinton playoff game at the school’s tiny gym in the northwest Bronx. For the first three-quarters of the 20th century, Clinton had one of the nation’s premier scholastic basketball teams. Besides Worsley and Texas Western in 1966, other Clinton graduates who played on NCAA championship teams were Ed Warner (CCNY, 1950), Jerry Harkness and Pablo Robertson (Loyola of Chicago, 1963) and Butch Lee (Marquette, 1977).
But in the fall of 1963, a few months after my bar mitzvah at the Young IsraeI of the Concourse, I did something incredibly stupid as far as my basketball career was concerned: I sat the entrance exam for the Bronx High School of Science.
A Bronx teenager in the 1960s who had aspirations for a serious college and pro basketball career would have normally chosen Clinton or Taft HS, which had solid basketball traditions.
By contrast, Bronx Science, in its nearly 75 years, has turned out a lot of machers (eight Nobel laureates in science, secretary of defense Harold Brown, New York Times executive editor Joseph Lelyveld, congresswoman Nita Lowey, Jewish communal leader Ronald Lauder, etc.) but not a single pro basketball, baseball or football player. In fact, unlike archrival Stuyvesant, my brother’s alma mater, it has never fielded a football team. (A prominent hoopster from Stuyvesant was Red Sarachek, who between the early 1940s and late 1960s coached Yeshiva University’s varsity basketball team.)
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Bronx Science graduate Todd Gitlin, a prominent academic who in the 1960s served as president of the radical Students for Democratic Society, has an essay in Jewish Jocks on Red Holzman, who in 1970 and 1973 coached the New York Knicks to their only two NBA titles. However, Gitlin, a professor at Columbia, is apparently clueless about basketball, giving a completely distorted account of Holzman’s playing career.
In the late 1930s Holzman starred for Franklin K. Lane HS (on the Brooklyn-Queens border), and then was an all-American guard for the incomparable Nat Holman at CCNY, who also coached the 1950 championship team. (Holman, while coaching CCNY, also starred for the barnstorming Original Celtics in the 1920s. In 1932 Holman helped organize the American team for the first Maccabi Games in Israel. Foer and Tracy inexcusably excluded “Mr. Basketball” from their idiosyncratic hall of fame.)
Gitlin incorrectly claims that the primary reason Holzman was signed in 1945 by the Rochester Royals of the National Basketball League was to attract the city’s Jewish fans, and that his play quickly “declined from good to unimposing.” In fact, he was the league’s Rookie of the Year in 1944-45, when the Royals won the NBL title. During the 1945-46 and 1947-48 seasons Holzman was voted to the All-League first team. After the merger of the NBL and the Basketball Association of America in 1948, which created the NBA, Holzman played on the team that won the 1951 NBA title.
Another clueless academic contributor to Jewish Jocks is Steven Pinker, a professor of psychology at Harvard. His truly repulsive profile of Red Auerbach, “The Coach Who Never Paid Retail,” begins with: “Jews are known for many things, but strength, swiftness and agility are not among them.”
Pinker, who grew up in that well-known basketball hotspot of Montreal in the 1950s and 1960s, has obviously never heard of former PSAL track stars Abel Kiviat and Marty Glickman.
Indeed, none of the 50 profiles in Jewish Jocks features a track and field star. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Gary Gubner, a world-class shot-putter, attended Clinton HS, where he also played football, and NYU. In the Auerbach essay, Pinker attributes Auerbach’s 16 NBA titles as a coach or front office executive to that immutable Jewish trait: “shrewdness in business.” But he never mentions that Auerbach was a second-team all-Brooklyn player at Eastern District HS in the 1930’s, when that famed borough had one of the nation’s most intensely competitive scholastic leagues. Auerbach then played for three years for the varsity at George Washington University before joining Admiral Ernst J. King’s Navy, the most awesome the world has ever seen, and coaching a service team for several years.
Auerbach was focused, laser-like, on winning NBA championships and, in a city that was not at all hospitable to black professional athletes, was a pioneer in the 1950s in recruiting black players, including Bill Russell, K.C. Jones, Sam Jones and Satch Sanders (from Manhattan’s Seward Park HS). By contrast, the Boston Red Sox didn’t sign their first black player, Pumpsie Green, until 1959 – 12 years after Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers had shattered Major League Baseball’s repugnant apartheid policy.
In 1967, when I played on the freshman team at CCNY, we played at Brooklyn College while the K.C. Jones-coached Brandeis team, which was very weak, played the home team’s varsity. As a callow 17-year-old, I couldn’t understand why Jones, who had just retired, was wasting his time coaching such a poor team. I didn’t realize that most major predominantly white colleges were not then receptive to hiring black coaches. In both 1984 and 1986, Jones would lead the Celtics to the NBA title.
The Celtics’ Jewish fans didn’t care that the team never had a Jewish player who was a key contributor to its championship teams. Red Auerbach lived by the credo of the New York City basketball courts: the best guys played. (I met Auerbach in 1978 at the 75th anniversary dinner of the PSAL. When he borrowed a quarter from me to make a phone call to find out how the Celtics fared that evening, I didn’t have the heart to tell him his team just didn’t have it that year.
Contrast Auerbach’s approach with that of Fred Wilpon, the owner of the hapless New York Mets, who played baseball with Sandy Koufax at Brooklyn’s Lafayette HS and who a few years ago took outspoken pride in the Mets’ Jewish owners, then-black manager and then-Hispanic general manager. During that time I happened to live in Queens, where the Mets have played for all but two of their 51 seasons, and I would sarcastically ask the team’s fans how many victories that multicultural bragging point put up for their team.
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I would suggest a future book about Jewish athletes and coaches – perhaps a sequel to Foer and Tracy’s anthology – that explores the collaboration between Jews and blacks in New York City hoops. Several chapters could be devoted to legendary Jewish high school coaches such as Mickey Fisher at Boys High and Jammy Moskowitz at Madison and the many black and Jewish players they coached and mentored. (Until the 1960s, few African-American men had college degrees, a prerequisite for coaching scholastic sports in New York City.)
Fisher, who led the Israeli national team in 1960 and then became the athletic director at Brandeis University, coached Hall of Famers Lenny Wilkens and Connie Hawkins.
The great merit of Foer and Tracy’s collection is that leading Jewish-American intellectuals, including David Brooks of The New York Times, Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, and Lawrence Summers, former treasury secretary and Harvard president, have gone on record with the recognition that sports is a legitimate area of scholarly pursuit and a healthy boost to ethnic pride.
Two earlier generations of Jewish-American intellectuals reared in New York City, including Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe, Nathan Glazer, Norman Podhoretz and Alfred Kazin, do not appear to have ever validated that crucial insight.
About the Author: Mark Schulte has written about World War II and the liberation of the concentration camp for two decades for The Jewish Press, New York Post, Weekly Standard, New York Daily News and other publications.
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