The game of basketball was invented in 1891 by a minister, James Naismith, who believed that it would promote “muscular Christianity.” That game would be unrecognizable today with its peach baskets, players passing the ball but never dribbling (a minor adjustment never envisioned by Naismith) and final scores like 5-4. It wasn’t until Jewish immigrants at the turn of the 20th century adopted the “ultimate city game”—and over the course of a few decades, from the ’20s to the ’50s, added innovations in play and strategy—that it went from one requiring brute strength to one that stressed skill and strategy. In their hands, basketball, first conceived as a simple, easy to play (but hard to master) game, became the crossover dribbling, three-point bombing sport that it is today.
Contrary to cultural stereotypes, early in the 20th century, most Jewish kids played basketball and played it well. The old schoolyard cliché that “any Jew great at sports was probably adopted” didn’t hold water. Those of us compelled to debunk the notion of Jews “without game” need look no further than the game of the ghettos during that golden era, when the sport was indeed considered the “Jewish game.” Because basketball requires very little in equipment at its bare root level, ghetto kids could improvise with makeshift paper balls shot through the lowest rung of the fire escape (backboards were unheard of). Leagues sponsored by YMHAs, yeshivas and synagogues flourished—in addition to the benefit of keeping kids off the corner and out of trouble, rabbis also realized that these teams served a greater purpose by ensuring that kids kept willingly coming back to shul.
Almost all Jewish neighborhoods had their own teams, rivalries were in fact fierce, and there was no question that the best ball in the era was played in New York and Philadelphia, the cities with the largest Jewish populations. For the chosen few, proficiency in shooting the rock could land one a college scholarship (often the only way a poor Jew could hope to attend) and provide a portal into middle class America. College basketball was one area of life where Jews were rarely denied the right to participate, certainly not the case in many other sports. Not surprisingly, many players stayed local, creating an era of elite college teams like City College of New York (CCNY), Long Island University (LIU), New York University and Temple. After a good college career, Jewish players on early semi-pro fives could earn as much as $5 a game, a veritable fortune back then.
During this era, so-called “Jew Ball” evolved—what was first used as a slur or, at best, a backhanded compliment, the term came to define the style of play that was later lauded as the “thinking man’s” game. Incorporating defense and constant motion with the aim of hitting the open man, it was the antithesis of the foul-plagued “football style” offense that prevailed in the early days. Indeed it was a style crucial to the later success of the college and pro game, and one that seminal coaches like Nat Holman and later his protégé Red Holzman, and later on his protégé Phil Jackson, would refine to perfection. Why, if that guy Naismith hadn’t come up with a few now-antiquated rules himself, you could almost say Jews invented modern basketball.
Just as stereotypes unfairly label today’s black players, many were foisted on the Jewish players in the ’20s and ’30s. Jew Ball provided an easy mark for journalists like Paul Gallico, the eminent sports editor of the NY Daily News who expressed the goy “excuse” in a 1930s column, stating that “the reason that basketball appeals to Hebrews is that the game places a premium on an alert scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.” Players who lost to all-Jewish teams whined that the shorter Jews had “God-given better balance and speed.” Genetic advantage or not, the fact is that in 1930, in the biggest college game of the year, with NYU facing CCNY (both teams were undefeated), 9 of the 10 starters were Jewish. How cool is that?
After the second World War, in an era when the hoopla of March Madness was as yet inconceivable and pro ball was still a curiosity, a handful of mostly eastern teams would battle in the once prestigious National Invitational Tournament (NIT) at Madison Square Garden in college basketball’s showcase event. NIT championship games, up until the ’50s, often included CCNY, LIU or St. John’s, schools that perennially produced some of the best and most innovative basketball in the nation and whose Jewish-laden rosters were the toast of the town. And when local Jewish fans checked their morning papers to find out how the rest of the best had fared, most looked first to see how the “Mighty Mites” of Yeshiva University had done against the other beasts of the east.
Those were the glory days for Jewish basketball, when players were still referred to as cagers (courts used to be ringed with wire or rope mesh to keep play continuous and protect players from abusive fans), when they shot and passed with two hands and when dunks were reserved for doughnuts—under the old rules, touching the rim was illegal. Sixty years before Air Jordans, $3 could get you a pair of black high-top Chuck Taylor All-Stars (and a hamburger and Coke for lunch), shorts were, well, short, and cheerleaders wore letter sweaters and ankle socks. Fans waved pennants, not Styrofoam fingers. Yes, it was a time when stars with names like Heyman, Schectman and Schayes pounded the hardwood, and the Jewish players were truly kings of the court.
By the late 1940s the heyday of the Jewish basketball star had diminished for a variety of cultural and demographic reasons, including a mass migration of middle-class Jews to the suburbs. The crushing blow was probably the point shaving scandal that rocked college basketball after the 1950 season. That many of the culprits were players from CCNY and NYU (who accepted money from gamblers to lose games on purpose or win games but by less than the point spread) proved to be a death knell for New York City college ball. But for what the game is now, we pay homage to its past with Chutzpah’s guide to Jewish basketball, A to Z.
By Len Canter