In the 2015–16 NBA season, the Jewish presence in the league was largely confined to Adam Silver, the commissioner; David Blatt, the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers; and Omri Casspi, a player for the Sacramento Kings. Basketball, however, was once referred to as a Jewish sport. Shortly after the game was invented at the end of the nineteenth century, it spread throughout the country and became particularly popular among Jewish immigrant children in northeastern cities because it could easily be played in an urban setting. Many of basketball’s early stars were Jewish, including Shikey Gotthoffer, Sonny Hertzberg, Nat Holman, Red Klotz, Dolph Schayes, Moe Spahn, and Max Zaslofsky.
In this oral history collection, Douglas Stark chronicles Jewish basketball throughout the twentieth century, focusing on 1900 to 1960. As told by the prominent voices of twenty people who played, coached, and refereed it, these conversations shed light on what it means to be a Jew and on how the game evolved from its humble origins to the sport enjoyed worldwide by billions of fans today. The game’s development, changes in style, rise in popularity, and national emergence after World War II are narrated by men reliving their youth, when basketball was a game they played for the love of it.
When Basketball Was Jewish reveals, as no previous book has, the evolving role of Jews in basketball and illuminates their contributions to American Jewish history as well as basketball history.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Nat Holman enjoyed a legendary career in basketball. Holman learned the game in YMHAs and settlement houses before matriculating at City College of New York (CCNY), a school he would later make famous as a coach. By the 1920s he had become one of the game's best players, first with Germantown and later with the Original Celtics, basketball's finest and most innovative team. Serving as the floor general, Holman established the Original Celtics as the game's first dynasty with his passing and leadership skills. Eventually he turned to coaching and helped CCNY become one of the country's top teams. Playing what was known as the "City Game," Holman led the Beavers to an unprecedented feat: winning the NIT and NCAA titles in the same year in 1950. Holman later became involved with sports in Israel.
Let me say at the very outset that basketball was not a new game on the Lower East Side. As a youngster, I would say as early as nine years of age, I played basketball at Public School 75. They had young teams. They had two divisions, 95 lbs. and 125 lbs. Now the 95-lbs. team did very well and moved on from there to Public School 62, which was down the street. Classes there went from 7A–7B, 8A–8B, and then on to high school. The basketball in that area, the games were always played in the playground at Stuart Park.
It was Commerce High School. There was the Henry Street Settlement. There was Clark House. Those settlement houses were where basketball was a big activity. On Saturday nights we competed against other institutions of a similar nature. They had a dance in between and a dance after the game. I will say this: the fellows that played basketball in that area were great ball handlers. They were tough. They moved well. They did not have the height, but they were tricky. They were sharp. I always admired them. There was a team called the Busy Izzies, and I want to tell you that in my book, they have given me more thrills than anything else that I have experienced, other than the double championship which we won at City College of New York.
The Busy Izzies had Barney Sedran, Marty Friedman, Willie Cohen, Jackie Fuller, and Alex Fuller. Sedran and Friedman were known as the Heavenly Twins. They were elected into the Basketball Hall of Fame. I played with that bunch, and I got a great deal of pleasure with them. The Busy Izzies and the University Settlement was when I was at Commerce High School.
At that time, as long as I wasn't traveling around the country playing with other teams, it was perfectly all right for me to play on any other teams on the off days. We never practiced. We had a game and we went, and I want to tell you, they were a great ball club.
There was a man by the name of Jim Gennity who was the athletic playground instructor. He was there seven days a week. Jim was a great basketball player, and he took a liking to me because I had athletic skill. I want to tell you that, I always said, I must tip my hat to Jim for inspiring me to progress in the game of basketball. There were others, but he tops the list.
You take the East Side in the summertime and you do not have the areas to play baseball. These boys had no means for automobiles to take them places, and no ballparks to play baseball. As far as I am concerned, it was the East Side that inspired me to play basketball and gave me the talent and the inspiration to move on to greater heights.
We played against college teams. We were playing sometimes, and they would not give us a college game, so we would get the freshmen to play us. Once we got in, we would make a good attraction. Know what I mean? It is difficult for me to go back that far.
Playing basketball on a floor that had dance wax on it was very difficult. My shoes had two holes up in the front and maybe two in the back, and we put Vaseline in them. This is so you wouldn't slide.
In dribbling, when you got the ball in your hand you had to tuck it under. You never threw it with one hand. I can't do it that way and then bring it back unless I hold it. We were able to change directions, pull in and draw back. Take the shot and bring it back.
It is imperative that any basketball player of any consequence has the capacity to out feint or throw a man off balance, drive in and draw back and to get the shot off. These things we gave a great deal of attention to when I was playing basketball. When I was playing baseball, I was the pitcher and I would throw that ball so fast into your lap, and I would have you worry about it too. Not only that, as I was passing it to this man here, I would hit some men right on the head, not intentionally. My intent is to get it across. I'm not concerned about you. And in doing so, I was always known as a pitcher.
I gave them many directions. With Dutch Dehnert as our pivot man, in my capacity, the other guys would get the ball to him but when they got it to me, as soon as I lifted my hand, the other guys would all break for the basket because it is in his lap. If someone else had the ball, he would be looking and looking and looking, and Dutch would be too late. You got to get the step on the man to get away.
It is nice to hear you say these things about the Original Celtics team. I concur with all that you say. On the other hand, we had to consider the personnel that was playing, the high level of personnel. It was a very important factor in my time. Today with these fellows there are eight men — five regulars and three others, one extra big man, another forward, and another guard. Today you have to have ten men. For injuries, in addition to that you have to have extra big men to take care of the center jump, to take care of the backboards, get the ball off the backboard, to tie up. You always have two men because you're the guy, you're the Angelo Luisetti. We are concerned about you. Listen, if these boys are going to go anywhere, increase their salary, you have to show that they are point getters. Do not tell me you are just a backboard man — not enough, not enough.
Dutch Dehnert was an easygoing person, a kind fellow. He never got excited. He was the kind of fellow that when he got in on a pivot play, he could wiggle and turn and move in various directions and the defensive man would whack him and everything else and Dutch never said anything to him. He got his play off, or he would bluff the pass to me. I would go in and then lift into the air; he'd spin and I would give it to him. He was a good man off the boards. I would say he was the best pivot man, the best all-around pivot man that we had at that time. He was the original pivot man. No one else got in there. When he took sick, we missed him. That is the Dutchman.
Now, Johnny Beckman. This fellow unquestionably was the fastest man on two feet. Johnny was a great shot. He would go into the air, and you could whack him and everything else. He would fall soft and would get a nice little spin with his right hand, and [with] his soft touch you would think he was not in motion. He took me out of my seat many times. I always loved to pass to him. Of course, he would feint in one direction and go off. He would get off at least three feet. That is all I needed to get the ball in there. If it were closer, than I would have to hold it up. Then he would have to buttonhook back. He was a great shooter, very fast, and took the bumps better than any man I know. He could have been a boxer. A good fighter, there was no one playing around with Johnny. He would not care if he was put out of the game. He would whack a guy, give it to him good. He was tough. If anybody hit me, he came alive. I would say if anybody was being abused somewhere and another member of the Celtics got involved, all of a sudden Johnny was getting wrapped up with him. He wanted to make sure.
Joe Lapchick played with a team up in Yonkers, and he was doing pretty well. We had Joe Haggerty before him. Haggerty was a big guy, but he didn't do much running. He did a good job off the boards. Both boards, but this guy was moving and if there was such a thing as getting into a fast break he would go down. When he [Lapchick] was married, I was his best man, and when I was married, he was my best man. We've gotten along very well. His wife today contacts me every now and then and wants to know if I'm going down to see one of the games. She would like to see me and all that. But I haven't been getting down there. I go down once in a while.
I am going to tell you something about [knee-length stockings and knee guards]. You do not know this, but inside here there are flaps. When they were hitting, they tried to slow you down for good. I am telling, you know, I got tears in my eyes many times when the guys were coming up the field and they would whack you. You are supposed to hit the ball, know what I mean? I'm going to tell you, they were very helpful. These things here, they come up to here. When you played in some of the places like the Manhattan Casino, they had wooden railings on the side. The uniforms were very, very heavy. It was to keep us warm. That was for the armories and the cold. People had their overcoats on and we had nothing on.
I played about five or six games a week. If we wanted to play seven games in a week, we played five games and two on Sunday, as it would be a doubleheader — one started at about two o'clock and then we would go to eat and then go to bed. Then we would go over there about eight o'clock in the evening for the evening game. Boy, I'm telling you, you had to learn how to conserve.
How did the body take this? I want to tell you, you had to adjust. Some guys, like Beckman, I never knew when he had time. He would go to the basket and get thrown, whacked, and then come back, come back half and he would be about ten feet ahead of his opponent. He had the quick change of direction. The guys that had it were ballplayers. I didn't have it, but I had other things. I would feint you out. I had to do all of that. That was a lunge, and then I would go the other way. Then I would come back. They would come up on me, and I would go through. All of these things are vital in our time for the little guys to do the job.
Physically? I'm going to tell you something. There are boxers 115 lbs. to 120 lbs. that go ten rounds. We guys were conditioned for that sort of thing. We did not have any time to go bumbling around or we would get pulled out the next night. Do you know what I mean? Do you know what I'm talking about? When they knew they had a tough one with doubleheaders, an afternoon game and an evening game, on Saturday night you hit the sack early. If not, Jim Furey got after you.
Jim Furey was a man who was a top salesman. What is the name of this place at Fifth Avenue and Thirty-Ninth Street, the big department store there? He was a chief buyer for the firm. In addition to that, he also ran the Celtics with his brother, Fat Tom. Between the two of them, they did the job. The Celtics broke up because there was too much money being offered. They were too good for the league [American Basketball League]. Well, they played their games and then they were ready for a coaching job or to be a part-time owner. These fellows were a great team in that era. Then the Celtics of Boston came along.
The boys [at City College of New York] went to the gym from their class work, and they would practice from four to six. I would have them on certain days maybe from four to five and then I had my assistant take over. I would hop an automobile out [of] the college gymnasium that would take me to wherever I had to go. These weekend games, I was there too. Depends on the game. I didn't miss too many. I would be at the game for one half, and after the kids were given the criticism and everything else they went upstairs. I went outside.
The boss at the college, my boss, came to me one day. Dr. Thomas A. Storey came from Stanford. He was a very bright man, hard driving, you do it my way or you're in trouble. I'm the boss. Dr. Storey called me into his office in the early years, "Mr. Holman, I want to talk to you about your schedule. I'm told you had to leave some of your classes. I'm very much concerned. I know about your basketball ability and everything else. They tell me you are playing outside a good deal, but I have to whip this out with you otherwise we may have to dismiss you." At that time, I was doing pretty well with my camp and basketball. I knew I had the students where I wanted them. We had those kids playing basketball. They moved the ball. They played at Madison Square Garden and after the game was over they would all come out with the City College flags, and they would walk to the subway, yelling and screaming. They were singing the alma mater. It was loud enough to be heard above the thunder of the street, automobiles, you name it. That gave me a thrill.
Mind you, I came from a family of seven boys and three girls and every one of those boys got an education. My brother graduated from City College, class of '03. My brother Morris was captain of the City College basketball team in 1918. Along comes his brother later as a coach. So, I say there was a great deal of enthusiasm for basketball. They loved it, and so when I got into college, I was always a stickler, a stickler, believe me, for the boys to maintain their academic standards, because I knew if they get out of here and they are dismissed and they fail, it is going to be my job. Coming from a family such as I did I appreciated what these boys were doing and I wanted them to continue. If they didn't do it I was a very unhappy coach regardless of the basketball results.
It was forty-four years ago this past summer that I connected with the camp [Camp Scatico]. Now the family is running it. I will say this, when we have these youngsters, boys and girls, we put an emphasis on good behavior. On top of that it was impossible for these children to be inspired unless the leader inspires them. I'm talking now about the counselor, so I want to say in all sincerity, I spent more time trying to locate counselors for my camp than I did going after campers. If I got the right man, and you are a camper, you are good for five years. The parents would recognize when coming up on the visits that the man [who] is handling their son is a pretty decent fellow, and their son is crazy about him.
[Barnstorming with the Original Celtics] was rough. It was very rough. When we reached our destination, we made it our business to judge the time before game time. How much time do we have to rest and when shall we eat? We would rest first and then we would get up and eat lightly. We ate heavy after the game. We had to adjust our schedules. What we were doing was part of our life, and going from one place to another, we had to make adjustments. Adjustments with playing conditions, adjustments with individuals who would play the first half and then get taken out ten minutes before the end of the first half, put them back in and start the second half. We had to adjust because we didn't have the large personnel the teams have today. As a result of that, we had to watch our conditions. The boys liked to drink their beer. They knew where their bread was buttered and they had to be right. Incidentally, to my knowledge, I don't believe any team ever beat us in a series.
We played the New York Whirlwinds in the Sixty-Eighth Street armory, and that team was composed of Barney Sedran, Marty Friedman, Willie Cohen, Jackie Fuller, and Alex Fuller. That is the team I told you about that Jim Gennity coached. We beat those fellows. The Celtics beat them, and each team won one series. We never got to play the final series. They just couldn't get together. Jim Furey could not work out the thing with the other fellows.
As a result of that, where did I go? I went to the Celtics and the different fellows all spread out. Joe Lapchick went to Cleveland. They were the Rosenblums. They were a good team, a very good team. Max Rosenblum was out there. A fellow by the name of Rose did most of the work for them. He used Max's name. He was a big operator in business. Marty Friedman played with the Rosenblums. He was a good friend of Max Rosenblum. Marty was small, about 5'7?. Barney Sedran was small. Barney was about 5'6?, 5'7?, a little shrimp. I want to tell you, he was great. For a little guy, he had a great shot, was a good passer. He could dribble in and out and find you when he had to. Marty Friedman is a great story. He had that first international basketball tournament right after World War I. He had a beautiful trophy that he brought back from France.
The Manhattan Casino, you got off the train at 155th Street at the Polo Grounds. You walked downstairs, and there was the dance hall. Now, they had dancing before, in between, and after the games. They had a beer place. They were serving beer. They had a railing with these individual pieces all around. In order to play basketball at the Manhattan Casino, the management — I'm sure it was the Manhattan Casino people — they went out and purchased a canvas piece. They used the railings, and they had baskets on rollers and they rolled them in. Same on the other side. We played on canvas. They tied the canvas to the side of the railings. Then, at the other end, you got the baskets pushed in up to the railing. I shall never forget the hardship and the pain I developed in the legs, and others did too, because when you came down and stopped short, this canvas would give. If you had experience with that you needed some attention the following day. The court was about seventy-five by thirty. It was wide enough to get your ball handling in and many a time the thing did not bother me at all.
Excerpted from "When Basketball Was Jewish"
Copyright © 2017 Douglas A. Stark.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of ContentsAcknowledgments
Harry “Jammy” Moskowitz
Joel “Shikey” Gotthoffer
Bernard “Red” Sarachek
Jack “Dutch” Garfinkel
Louis “Red” Klotz