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September 18, 2014 / 23 Elul, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘NBA’

ESPN: Israel’s Mekel to Sign with NBA’s Mavericks

Monday, July 1st, 2013

Israeli point guard Gal Mekel is poised to become the second Israeli to play in the NBA after giving a verbal commitment to the Dallas Mavericks.

Mekel, 25, informed the Mavs early Monday morning that he would sign a three-year contract with the 2011 champions at the end of the annual trade and signing moratorium on July 10, ESPN reported.

He  has agreed to sign a minimum salary contract, which according to ESPN’s Marc Stein helps his chances of being signed since the Mavs are looking to save money as they pursue star center Dwight Howard in free agency.

Mekel led Maccabi Haifa to its first Israeli championship and was the Super League MVP. Shortly after winning the title, he arrived in the United States, where he was also courted by five other NBA teams – Milwaukee, Toronto, Atlanta, Indiana and Memphis.

Mekel played in college for Wichita State from 2006 to 2008.

In other NBA news, Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the league, became an unrestricted free agent on Sunday after the Cleveland Cavaliers opted not to extend his $3.3 million contract. He has played in Cleveland for the past two seasons.

Israel’s NBA Player Omri Casspi Undergoes Appendectomy

Monday, February 25th, 2013

Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, had an appendectomy.

The Cleveland Cavaliers forward had his appendix removed on Saturday night at the Orlando Regional Medical Center and stayed overnight at the hospital, CBS Sports reported Sunday, citing a team news release.

Casspi was to be re-evaluated on Sunday.

He had been taken to the hospital on Saturday and diagnosed with acute appendicitis, the statement said, adding that his status would be updated as appropriate.

The 6-foot-9 Casspi, a native of Yavne in central Israel, was averaging 4 points and 2.2 rebounds in limited minutes this season.

Media reports said that Casspi’s agents had requested a trade from the Cavs, but in a recent interview with JTA, Casspi said he had never made such a request.

Time Out

Thursday, July 5th, 2012

South Florida has received quite a boost from the newly crowned National Basketball Association champion Miami Heat. It’s difficult to describe the frenzy of Heat fans in their quest for victory. It is truly compelling that in this time of economic downturn, the Heat sold out every home game. Apparently, the thrill of experiencing this type of event is quite powerful.

Sports is the quintessential bonding experience for diverse members of a community. CEOs and janitors, professors and school dropouts, men and women, youngsters and grandparents all get caught up in the euphoria.

Hotels were filled with tourists. Many visitors came from out of town. Some were fans of the opposing team. Some took advantage of the party-like atmosphere to take vacations. There were sportscasters and “wannabes,” family, friends and entourages of the players, and individuals who just wanted to be part of the exciting mix.

One visitor, however, was so unlikely that his presence was almost surreal. Former prisoner of Hamas Gilad Shalit was in town to launch his new career as a sportswriter. He watched the NBA finals and visited the Miami Dolphins training camp and the University of Miami football team.

Shalit was a 19-year-old Israeli soldier when he was kidnapped in a raid by Hamas terrorists in 2006. He was held hostage for over five years. His photo showed a bespectacled sweet-faced kid. He could have been anyone’s brother, son, neighbor or grandchild. In all that time his whereabouts where unknown. His captors denied him visits from the International Red Cross. Jews everywhere were haunted by his wrenching story.

Prime Minister Netanyahu ultimately did the unthinkable to save this one Israeli soldier. On October 17, 2011, Shalit was released in exchange for more than 1,000 Arab prisoners.

Gilad has kept out the spotlight since his return. He came to Florida with his newfound mentor, Arik Henig, a popular Israeli media figure who writes for newspapers and television. Henig, a seasoned reporter, was showing the ropes to his young protegé.

The question, of course, is how was it possible? Shalit is painfully shy and soft-spoken. How did this young man survive his ordeal? He was a kid alone. How did he muster the strength?

Shalit is a very private person. He does not like to be interviewed. He usually shuns discussion about his time in captivity. However, he shared some insights while in Miami. His revelations were poignant.

He told of his saving grace: he was given a radio by his jailers and was allowed to listen to sport broadcasts. Sometimes he even watched a televised soccer game with his guards. He had a distraction; a way to avoid dealing with his terrible predicament. He had a way to survive.

There are many who have great disdain for sports. They dismiss it as nahrishkeit (nonsense). They look down on those who play and those who watch.

The Rambam advised pleasurable distraction as a way of refreshing oneself and going on in one’s life. He suggested walks in a beautiful garden. Obviously he never heard of the NBA.

Life is often difficult. It is always terminal. One does not have to be a prisoner of terrorists to become overwhelmed by it all. Torah study, prayer, work and obligations are important. Sometimes there is a great need for a time out to refresh and revive.

What We Can Learn From The Old New York Knicks

Wednesday, December 14th, 2011

The delayed start of the professional basketball season due to a labor dispute has left me indifferent. It has been many years since I watched an entire game, even more since I actually attended one in person. There are simply better and more enjoyable ways to utilize my time, not to mention that, realistically, “professional” basketball has unfortunately not been played in the metropolitan area for some time.

To someone who was an avid Knicks fan in his youth, reared on the glories of the Knick championship teams now almost four decades gone, much of professional basketball has become unwatchable – a parade of dunking, jumping and individual efforts more suitable to TV highlights than to success in a team sport.

That is why I read with great delight Harvey Araton’s recently-released When the Garden was Eden, a chronicle of those glorious Knicks teams of Reed and Frazier, Bradley and DeBusschere, Barnett and Monroe, Phil Jackson and Red Holzman. It is an account not only of their victories and struggles, but especially of their disparate backgrounds and personalities that meshed to form what might be the greatest team in NBA history, even if it was never composed of the greatest players in NBA history or even of that era. There is heart, self-sacrifice, unselfishness and determination, a microcosm (as Araton notes in a running subtext) of what America could have been like with racial harmony and mutual respect.

The team revolved around Willis Reed, and the narrative of Game 5 (1970 Finals – Reed injured, team trailing, but somehow miraculously defeat the Laker behemoths of Chamberlain, Baylor and West) makes as riveting and inspiring reading today as it was listening to that game. And Game 7 – Reed emerging through the runway and limping onto the court shortly before the game began, having taken shots of painkillers to ease the throbbing in his torn hip muscle – is the stuff of legends and clichés. DeBusschere turned, saw the Lakers mesmerized – frozen – by the sight of the injured Captain, and said to himself, “We got ‘em.” They did, in a rout.

I missed that game – May 8, 1970, a Friday night. Having seen the game in subsequent years on film, it remains enthralling entertainment and a slice of life. Walt Frazier, who had one of the greatest Game 7’s ever – 36 points, 19 assists – resented that Reed received the MVP award after having played barely five games in the series. But watching the game again with Araton – for his first time ever, Frazier said – he retracted and apologized for his earlier sentiments. It was Reed’s presence alone that intimidated the Lakers, and he deserved the MVP status.

The backgrounds of the major players were as diverse as America. Reed from the deep South, Frazier from urban Atlanta, DeBusschere from working class Detroit, and Bradley from upper middle class Republican bankers in Missouri – but all bonding through an understanding and appreciation of their diversity.

There was some underlying racial tension on the team – specifically the resentments of the talented Cazzie Russell who was the sixth man behind the slow-footed, cerebral Bill Bradley (my personal favorite player). Russell chafed in his role – even called Reed an “Uncle Tom” once for rebuking him, to which Reed essentially glared him into an apology and greater deference – but most basketball pundits saw Bradley’s genius, outside the numbers of the box score, in running the floor, passing, setting up teammates, disrupting the opposition, and creating offensive harmony.

It was a joy to behold – the team game, the movement without the ball, the shot going to the open man, the helping out on defense. It will surprise no one who watched those teams that Bradley was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame, despite a career average of 12 points a game, with his season high topping out at 16 points a game. Indeed, seven other players from those teams are also Hall of Famers, and yet they succeeded in keeping their egos in check. Even the magical performer Earl “the Pearl” Monroe, a 1971 addition, learned to sublimate his skills for the good of the team –for example, insisting when he arrived on the team that he not take Dick Barnett’s starting position.

It was a different era. Most players did not earn great amounts of money from professional sports, held off-season jobs and actually needed the playoff money. Only Bradley had signed the big contract after college, his career delayed by studies in Oxford and then service in the Air Force – another relic of a bygone era. Willis Reed lived in Rego Park, a far cry from Derek Jeter’s penthouse in Trump Tower, and not far from where my own great aunt lived. It was a middle class existence, to which the average fan could easily relate.

Milt And Wilt – Mitzvah Men

Wednesday, July 21st, 2010

Up in the Catskills, a man named Yossi Zablocki is trying to save the last blintz palace of my generation’s youth. The place is called Kutsher’s Country Club.

Once, in another world, I spent a lot of time there covering basketball players and boxers in training for their big fights and sports clinics that drew 500 high school and college coaches from all over the country for a week each summer to study under coaching giants like Red Auerbach, Nat Holman, Ara Parseghian and Adolph Rupp.

The man who made it all work was Milton Kutsher.

It was also a time when that slice of the world, comprised of a great wall of kosher hotels affectionately known as the Borscht Belt, had its own lifestyle, bringing with it a ritual of family summers that didn’t need jet air travel or Caribbean beaches or the green felt tables of Las Vegas.

This was the world of stomach-bending meals, group activities, games of “Simon Says,” and stages that served as training grounds for future giants of comedy.

And the soft, summer evenings were punctuated from one end of the “Jewish Alps” to the other with the steady thump, thump, thump of basketballs dribbled against asphalt and the perfect punctuation mark of the swish as the ball arched through the net.

Everybody had a team of pseudo-busboys and bellmen straight off college campuses. Who could ever forget the sight of the world’s tallest bellhop out of Philadelphia – a man named Wilt Chamberlain – and a surrounding cast of players featuring talent like Frank Ramsey, Cliff Hagen and Neil Johnson?

But all of that pales against the memory of what Kutsher put together with the Maurice Stokes Basketball Game.

The story begins in 1958 on an airplane bringing the Cincinnati Royals home from Detroit, where they had been seven-point losers to the Pistons in the first of a best-of-three, opening-round NBA playoff series.

The plane was more than halfway to Cincinnati when Maurice Stokes, a man with a spectacularly impressive body and who, at 6-feet-7, had been the NBA’s third best rebounder, suddenly collapsed.

That he did not die right there was the direct result of a determined flight attendant who raced for an oxygen tank. That he did not die en route to the hospital in Cincinnati was the direct result of an alert pilot’s radio message and a dedicated EMS team.

That he continued to live for 12 years, during which time he taught himself to speak again and became wheelchair ambulatory, was the result of his own refusal to die.

And that he could defy every medical prognosis surrounding his affliction with encephalitis during that period was the direct result of the remarkable self-sacrifice of teammate Jack Twyman, the determination of the best players in the NBA, who set an unequalled standard for caring, and the total commitment of a Catskill hotel owner: Milton Kutsher.

It was Twyman, a Cincinnati resident, who camped out in the hospital, had himself declared Stokes’s official guardian and managed the money while he struggled to find more. And it was Kutsher who set in motion the vehicle that cut into the debts, paid the bills and kept on paying them.

Kutsher gave new meaning to the phrase “Do the right thing” by creating the Maurice Stokes Basketball Game, which drew NBA All-Stars and became a lifesaver for the needy in the basketball community.

Back then salaries were more modest, there was no NBA pension plan and a lot of family members of basketball players needed help.

It began when Twyman, desperate for funds to keep Stokes alive, happened to hold a chance conversation with Kutsher.

“We got a hotel and we got an outdoor basketball court,” he told Twyman. “You tell the players to get here and we’ll house them, we’ll feed them and we’ll sell the tickets.”

Nobody who ever played in the game asked for a plane ticket to get there. Started on an outdoor court, the game ultimately moved into a gym that held 4,000 and sold out every time.

In a world of far too many ersatz heroes, I-got-mine role models and what’s-in-it-for-me superstars, the game was a success thanks to Kutsher and a handful of NBA players with a social conscience.

Court Jews: Pro Basketball’s Forgotten History

Wednesday, June 27th, 2007

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.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/indepth/front-page/court-jews-pro-basketballs-forgotten-history/2007/06/27/

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