While there is only one Jewish player in the NBA today — Omri Casspi of the Golden State Warriors, of course — basketball in the United States was once called a Jewish sport.
Invented in Springfield, Massachusetts at the turn of the 20th century, basketball was a natural for the immigrant communities of the urban Northeast, as the sport was relatively easy to learn, inexpensive, and required only a handful of players for games at the schoolyard or local gymnasium.
“When Basketball was Jewish” is author Douglas Stark’s second book about Jews and basketball, following up on his 2011 “The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team” — meaning the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association squad that won seven titles in 13 seasons in the American Basketball League in the 1940s and ’50s.
The subtitle of Stark’s new book is “Voices of Those who Played the Game,” and in 20 interviews (many originally published in other archives or publications), Stark chronicles the lives of Jewish players from 1900 to 1960. Each biography begins with a brief introduction by the author, includes a photograph and follows with an oral testimony by the player himself.
An interview with Nat Holman, who influenced the careers of many Jewish players, opens the collection. His interview, like the others, is a mix of anecdotes about basketball’s early years, how Jews got involved in the sport and how his participation influenced his Jewish identity.
After retiring at the age of 32, Holman was selected by the 92nd Street YMHA (today known as the 92nd Street Y) to be its first director of a newly established Department of Health and Physical Hygiene. He also served as the president of the U.S. Committee for Sports in Israel. A large, multipurpose gymnasium at the City College of New York is named for him, and the Wingate Institute for Physical Education in Israel has a program titled the Nat Holman School for Coaches and Instructors. Inducted into the Naismith Memorial (U.S.) Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964, he died in 1995 at 98.
The final interview is with Dolph Schayes, who had a 16-year career with the Philadelphia 76ers and their precursors, the Syracuse Nationals. He graduated from New York University with an engineering degree but had already helped NYU reach the NCAA final as a freshman. When asked about her son’s career path, Schayes’ mother shared that her son was planning to be a professional basketball player, but as Schayes recalls, his aunt did not see this as an appropriate career for a “nice Jewish boy.”
“After 24 years, it really became a pretty good job,” he says in the book. “I was very proud, because at that time I was probably the youngest member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.”
Other players featured in the book include some of basketball’s earlier stars, such as Joel “Shikey” Gotthoffer, Sonny Hertzberg, Louis “Red” Klotz, Moe Spahn and Max Zaslofsky.
“When Basketball was Jewish” is more than a sports record. As Stark writes in his introduction, these essays demonstrate that basketball was “part and parcel of how the country was shaped in the 20th century.” They show that “Jews were very much a part of this process. Their stories are the story of basketball. Their stories are the search for an American game. Their stories are the quest for an American identity.”
Both Jewish history and basketball enthusiasts will enjoy this fascinating record of American Jewish life and its impact on American sport.