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The Last Original Jewish Knick

Oscar “Ossie” Schectman, who scored the first basket in the history of the league that evolved into the National Basketball Association, died last week at age 94.

Mention the names Ossie Schectman, Leo Gottlieb, Sid Hertzberg, Ralph Kaplowitz, Nat Militzok, Hank Rosenstein and Jake Weber, and the image that probably comes to mind is that of the board of directors of a Florida retirement village rather than a good chunk of 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 NBA.

With Schectman’s passing, they’re all gone now.

Other teams had Jews on their rosters but not nearly in those numbers, and neither would the Knicks themselves by the team’s second season. Still, it was not uncommon in that era for a typical game between two professional teams to feature at least two or three Jews on the court.

While a Jewish presence in a popular big-time sport makes for a nice story, 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 1940s and ‘50s. 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, etc. – not exactly known for their cosmopolitan allure.

Even the Knicks, playing in basketball-crazy New York, were carried on local radio only sporadically until the mid-1960s and actually played through two separate seasons (1960-61 and 1963-64) when no radio station in town would broadcast any of their games.

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

Big time or not, the pro game in the early years had more than its share of Jewish players, most of them second-generation Americans 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.”

If it seems like an eternity since Jewish players were a familiar sight on NBA courts, it’s because by the time Dolph Schayes, the greatest Jewish player of them all, hung up his sneakers for good he was already one of the last of a vanishing breed – and that was nearly five decades ago.

(Following his playing days, Schayes embarked on a coaching career with mixed results, leading the Philadelphian 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 1970s. 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. )

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

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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