Photo by by David Zellaby
New Yorkers of a certain age who dig hoops can tell you that there is a lot of Jewish DNA in the city game.
Basketball was invented in 1891 by James Naismith, an instructor at a YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, but the game’s popularity really took off early in the 20th century in the settlement house gyms and schoolyards of slum immigrant neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.
By the 1920s, Jewish traveling teams were barnstorming across America. Sold-out college doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden in the ’30s and ’40s, featuring Jewish stars from CCNY, NYU, and other New York schools, became a staple of sports life in the city. The preeminence of Jews on the court was much remarked on in New York’s newspapers. In 1937 the renowned Daily News sports columnist Paul Gallico, explaining Jews affection for the game, wrote, “Basketball places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart aleckness.” Another sportswriter claimed, “If the Jew had set out to invent a game that incorporated the traits indigenous to him…he could not have had happier inspiration than basketball.”
Arguably, the apex of Jewish-American success on the court came in 1950 when Nat Holman’s CCNY squad, whose starting five consisted of three Jews and two African-Americans, won both the NCAA and NIT year-end championship tournaments, including a remarkable 89 to 50 rout of the defending champion, Kentucky. The following year seven CCNY players were arrested for accepting money from gamblers in a point-shaving scandal. College basketball in New York never fully recovered, and in the years that followed, as Jews moved to the suburbs and climbed the economic ladder, their prominence on the court quickly receded. (i)
To this day, however, basketball has a special place in the urban Jewish imagination. Whether you are at a Knicks game at the Garden or a Nets game at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, you will notice plenty of yarmulke-wearing young men in attendance. And at the end of the countless articles in the Times recounting the perennial woes of the Knicks, you are likely to see reader comments from Sid on the Upper West Side, Irving from Cedarhurst, or Sy of Midwood, wistfully recounting the Knickerbockers glory days of the 1970s when Reed, Frazier, Debusschere, and Bradley played the game the right way, under the tutelage of the team’s old-school Jewish coach from Brooklyn, Red Holzman.
From 1974 to 1978, when I was in high school, I played on the intermediate and later the senior basketball team of Young Israel of Manhattan. We practiced in the East Broadway basement gym of the Educational Alliance (or the Edgies as we called it), a Lower East Side institution that’s been providing social services since the late 19th century. Although our team’s name suggested we represented the entire borough of Manhattan, all the players were from the Lower East Side neighborhood, with most of them coming from the Grand Street Cooperatives, a series of buildings consisting of 4500 apartments, running from the East River all the way to Essex Street. The Cooperatives, built between 1930-to-1960, were sponsored and financed by the garment trade unions. Nearly everyone who lived there was Jewish, and felt fortunate to have escaped the surrounding tenement slums and housing projects that by the 1970s had become menacing. The Grand Street houses were an enclave in a very rough neighborhood, and it would be fair to say many of its residents felt embattled. (ii)
One ugly manifestation of the neighborhood’s tensions in the 1970s played out in a series of bitterly contested local school board elections. For several years, a slate of candidates backed by the teacher’s union and local Jewish groups would face off against a competing bloc backed by Puerto Rican politicians, left-wing activists and parent groups. Bilingual education and the replacement of Jewish teachers were hotly debated, but most importantly hundreds of patronage jobs were at stake. During the run up to elections, sound trucks equipped with powerful loudspeakers would roam the streets of the Lower East Side, imploring people to vote. Racist and anti-Semitic innuendos were staples of the school board campaigns. On Election Day, platoons of police, accompanied by attorneys from the United States Justice Department, monitored voting sites. I remember the son of the unfortunately named Adolph Roher, who headed the Grand Street-Union of Federated Teachers slate, getting rides home in a police car from the Avenue B yeshiva we had both attended. The kid was in the 7th grade at the time. At school board meetings there were fistfights and arrests. On at least one occasion innocent bystanders were injured by bricks and bottles. Puerto Rican street gangs and the Jewish Defense League became involved in public meetings that were supposed to be about schools and education policy. What does any of this have to do with basketball? Not much, except that, like it has been for so many others over the last 100 years, the game provided us emotional sustenance, social cohesion and a distraction from some of the more unpleasant aspects of daily life. (iii)
Our Young Israel of Manhattan 9th-10th grade squad had its own divide. There were eight yeshiva boys who played with yarmulkes bobby-pinned to their heads, and then six of us who went to public high schools. While religion was the central organizing principal of the lives of slightly over half the team, the rest of us were dismissive of Judaism’s rule and rituals, skeptical about the existence of God, and slightly embarrassed by our more pious teammates. They were probably even more embarrassed by us. The Young Israel authorities insisted that on entering an opposing team’s gym we all wear a head covering of our choosing, which we could, remove as soon as we stepped on the court. During time-outs, the religious kids sat on one end of the bench and we sat on the other.
We weren’t very good, but we all took basketball incredibly seriously. Our star player Elie was a pudgy teenager with glasses and a complexion reminiscent of Elmer’s Glue. He was quiet, but when he did speak it was in a high-pitched falsetto. Before practices, Elie would usually be off in a corner reading some religious text. He was a great shooter, a natural lefty but pretty much ambidextrous, ever alert, and surprisingly quick-footed. At dramatic moments, he’d always somehow manage to get to the basket and score, even when he got smacked across the face. Near the end of close games, he would start squealing directions to his teammates. The closer the game, the faster he spoke and the higher his pitch. It was petty comical, not in the least, because he was really good. There was also a religious black kid named Eliezer, on our team one year. He had an impressive afro and never talked to anyone. Silent Eliezer would, for very short spells, be the best player out on the court. But he was reticent and unwilling to assert himself. His interior life and where he came from were mysteries to me.
An epidemiologist studying the precarious health of New York’s Jewish neighborhoods during those years would have found a strong correlation between the scores of our games and the demographic changes transforming the city. We travelled from the bottom of Brooklyn to the top of the Bronx. Brighton Beach, Bensonhurst, Flatbush, Canarsie, Crown Heights, Parkchester, Pelham Parkway, Baychester, Kingsbridge, Co-Op City. It was one crumbling gymnasium after another. Teams would show up with only five or six players, and you’d hear their coaches grumbling about how five years earlier they had so many players that they had fielded an A team and a B team.
We pretty much clobbered everybody until we got to Co-Op City, which had only recently opened. It was the largest residential development in the United States. Close to 50,000 Jews had moved there en masse, most of them escaping from the South Bronx. Young Israel of the Grand Concourse no longer existed. And from this huge tribe that had headed up to the northeast corner of the Bronx, there were a lot of basketball players. You couldn’t get there by the subway. Our two coaches and someone’s dad had to shlep us all up in their cars. They had a brand new gymnasium and bleachers filled with people who actually came to watch the game. I remember a blond-haired kid dunking on me. That’s all I recall about my time in Co-Op City, other than an endless number of hideous looking apartment towers and our assistant coach driving erratically and getting lost on the way home from the game.
Jewball, as it was called, either derisively or as the highest compliment depending on who was talking, involved a particular style of play and certain basic principles that hadn’t changed much over the years. Moving without the ball, passing to the open man, back cuts to the basket, off-the ball picks, and coordinated motion. Or what Paul Gallico had referred to as trickiness and general smart aleckness. I was the center on our team, and on offense would be mostly in the high post, around the foul circle, passing the ball to teammates. Defensively we played zones. Two-one-two. Three-two, Two-three, box-and-one. “Don’t forget basketball is a Jewish game,” our coach sometimes told us. That statement sounded preposterous to all of us. For me, the chaos and serendipity of unsupervised playground ball with its stutter step dribbles, behind the back passes, double-pump reverse layups, finger-rolls, and between-the-legs dribbling was more appealing than the organized structure of league ball. There were half a dozen schoolyards where my friends and I would play, but by the 10th grade the courts at 19th Street east of 2nd Avenue, which was a short walk from Stuyvesant High School, was our usual after-school meeting ground. Street basketball played with a boom box soundtrack. Shake, shake, shake. Shake your booty. Beer, pizza, and marijuana. The life of a teenager.
Of course, no one on our Young Israel of Manhattan team was blind to the virtuosity of the great African-American players who had taken the game to entirely new levels and dominated the collective consciousness of basketball crazed New Yorkers. On several occasions in 1976 our team received free tickets and went on a chartered bus to see the New York Nets play out on Long Island. It was the last year of the American Basketball Association with its red, white and blue ball. Dr. J was in his prime and his up-and-down vagabond ballet high-flying feats were enthralling. An evening spent watching Dr. J confirmed, not that any of us needed convincing, that basketball was the greatest game in the world. (iv)
Our practices were Sunday nights from 8 to 10 pm. During the winter, after practice ended, I’d put my clothes on over my sweaty uniform, zipping up my winter coat and pulling the hood over my head. I lived on Avenue A and 3rd Street. If I walked fast, it made for a 20 minute walk. From East Broadway, I’d head up Clinton to Grand and head west past Kossar’s, the 24-hour bialy place. Through its moist, partly fogged storefront window, I could stop and observe workers on the night shift toiling away. Water, yeast, salt, onion, garlic, flour. The bakers shaping the dough into dozens of spherical slabs on large trays that they would slide into the oven.
Turning right on Essex Street, I would head north past Seward Park High School. This is when things could start getting tricky with the street lights burned out and the Avenue deserted. I knew people who had been mugged on this stretch. My heavy coat and hood was a suit of armor concealing my identity to possible predators. There was a particular street walk I affected—brisk with a hint of a swagger, but not too exaggerated. Right step forward, right shoulder lurching out–telegraphing to the world, I hoped, a message of confidence and self-assurance. I walked with my head down, eyes darting from side-to-side, ears listening for footsteps a block away. Heart pounding. Senses on ultra-high alert. Just hoping to make it safely to the well-lit all-night newsstand on the corner of Delancey. Then quickly crossing over to the other side of the street when I’d get into sight of Bernstein’s on Essex, the Kosher Chinese restaurant that stayed open late. Always people there on a Sunday night. One more block and there was the municipal parking lot and its watchful attendant, providing reassurance. Past Houston, and I’d be nearly home. My keys out and ready in my right hand, the big front door key sticking out between the second and third finger, a weapon if worst came to worst. Then, finally, entering my building vestibule, sliding the key into the front lock and in one smooth motion opening the door, removing the key and quickly pulling the door shut. And when I was safely in the lobby and waiting for the elevator, feeling an intense surge of joy and relief washing over me as I pressed the elevator button. Home.
Now it can be told. I was a Young Israel of Manhattan All-Star. The all-star game in 1976 was played at the Edgies East Broadway gym. One team was made up of Young Israel teams from Brooklyn-Manhattan-Bronx and the other consisted of players from teams on Queens and Long Island. Each team could choose two players for the game. Our Manhattan team head coach had told us to choose our two All Stars among ourselves. We all wrote down two names and put them in a hat and the coach counted up the votes. Eli was our best player, but there was no stand out for a second choice. The whole thing seemed rigged to favor one of the religious kids since they made up the majority of our squad, but mysteriously I was selected as the second player. Was there a schism among our pious teammates? My friend and teammate Jay cryptically told me, “Sometimes people surprise you.”
The All-Star game was the only time my father ever came to one of my games. I remember looking up in the stands and seeing him reading the New York Times, his bible for understanding the world. He was sitting next to an odd young man who did the play-by-play of all our games, speaking excitedly into a portable tape recorder. Over the years, the fellow spent hundreds of hours memorializing accounts of our games that surely no one except himself ever heard. There may have been a dozen other people, at the most, watching the All-Star game. An old-timer named Red refereed. The man would blow his whistle and announce fouls with such tough-guy furious authority that no one dared argue with his calls. Eli, for some reason, never showed, so my friend Jay, who happened to be in the gym, got to play as the second Young Israel of Manhattan All-Star.
My afternoon of glory was not to be. Two of my teammates, kids from the Bronx were determined to shoot the ball every time they got their hands on it. They were our guards, but passing the ball was of no interest to either of them. I took maybe six shots the entire game. One of them, at the end of the first half, was a heave from just past the half court line that luckily banked in off the backboard as the halftime horn sounded. Somehow we managed to lose badly to a bunch of spoiled rich kids from Queens and Long Island. It was a disgrace.
After the game I walked home with my father. When he asked me which team won, I realized he might not have watched a single minute of the game. The New York presidential primary was in a few days. Unlike much of the rest of America, New Yorkers had not been seduced by Jimmy Carter, and my dad was especially dismissive of the man who would become our 39th President. There was, he told me, a lot not to like. For starters there were Carter’s frequent public declarations that he had been born again and his ever-present disingenuous toothy grin. And his solemn insistence that although New York City was facing fiscal catastrophe that it should not get any “special favors” was worrying. Then there was the Daily News interview where Carter had said that he saw nothing wrong with people determined to maintain the “ethnic purity” of their neighborhoods. I know these things about Jimmy Carter, because on our walk home my dad, an old-fashioned New Deal Democrat, told me about them. (v)
As my dad was explaining in detail the problems with Jimmy Carter, I was beating myself up for taking only six shots in the Young Israel All-Star game and feeling very angry with those Bronx gunners who came into my home gym and wouldn’t pass me the ball. I should have told off the curly-haired kid who was particularly irritating. No, I should have slapped him hard in the face at half time. That’s what I should have done. Although, of course, I would never do anything like that because not only would it be conduct unbecoming of a Young Israel All-Star, but also the kid might slap me right back. And then what? Nevertheless from Grand to Delancey to Houston to Third Street, I imagined myself slapping, punching and head butting the curly haired shooting guard from the Bronx, while I was getting educated on the many failings of Jimmy Carter. As we were in our building lobby waiting for the very slow moving elevator, it seemed my dad had finally finished. Then after a minutes of silence he looked at me and said, “That shot you made at the end of the first half, that wasn’t too bad.”
(i) For more on the history of Jews and basketball see: (1) “A Sport at which Jews Excel: Jewish Basketball in American Society, 1900—1951,” PhD Dissertation of Arieh Sclar, Department of History Stony Brook 2008 (2) the documentary film The First Basket http://www.thefirstbasket.com/ (3) Pickup Artists: Street Basketball in America, Verso 1999; (4) When City College Won It All Twice by Marvin Kalb (New York Daily News March 24, 2013); (5) The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, Doug Stark Temple University Press, 2011.
(ii) Young Israel, founded on the Lower East Side in 1912, is a national Orthodox Jewish organization, although all my friends and I knew about it was that it afforded us a chance to play organized basketball. Other neighborhood teams from the surrounding projects also used the Edgies gym on East Broadway and sometimes the Young Israel of Manhattan senior team would scrimmage there against Police Athletic League teams and other neighborhood squads.
(iii) An account of one particularly violent Lower East Side school board meeting was reported by the New York Times on July 20, 1973:
The Times reported extensively on the neighborhood’s school board battles and ethnic tensions. Two articles dated April 4, 1973 and May 13, 1974 provide an overview: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/abstract.html?res=9902E5D61538EF3ABC4C53DFB2668388669EDE
(iv) The Nets won the ABA Championship in 1976. The following year, they entered the National Basketball Association, but the financially struggling Nets would sell Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers before the start of the 76-77 season. The New York Knicks in 1976 failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 10 years. Reed and Debusschere had retired, and Frazier and Earl Monroe were on the downside of their careers.
(v) The New York primary was won by Henry “Scoop” Jackson, a Cold War anti-communist Democrat who was sticking up for Jews in the Soviet Union. Mo Udall, a liberal Senator from Arizona who at one time played basketball for the Denver Nuggets, finished second. Carter won only 33 of New York’s 274 delegates.
Jacob Margolies is a writer and lawyer living in Brooklyn, New York.