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.