While there are few professional Jewish basketball players today, basketball was once called a Jewish sport. Invented in Springfield, MA at the turn of the twentieth century, urban, immigrant communities of the Northeast were a central address for this relatively easy to learn and inexpensive pastime. When Basketball was Jewish is author Douglas Stark’s second book on the history of Jews in basketball. In twenty 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 opens the collection. Holman, a central figure in the history of the sport, influenced the careers of many Jewish players. 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 thirty-two, Holman was selected by the Ninety-Second 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; the gym of Israel’s Wingate Institute for Physical Education, an Olympic training facility, is named for him. He was inducted into the U.S. Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964.
The final interview is with Dolph Schayes, who had a sixteen-year career with the Syracuse Nationals and its successor, the Philadelphia 76ers. 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 his career path, Schayes’s 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 twenty-four years, it really became a pretty good job. I was very proud, because at that time I was probably the youngest member of the Basketball Hall of Fame.”
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 twentieth 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.
Jonathan Fass is the Chief Operating Officer of Jewish Family Service in Stamford, CT.