Basketball and the Jews

A street game goes professional.

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On March 3, 1934, a group of young Jewish men helped change basketball history. On that night, fans in New York City watched with anticipation for the winner of a game between New York University (NYU) and City College of New York (CCNY).

The New York Times stated that the 20th annual meeting between the two schools had "never before … aroused such widespread interest," as both teams entered the contest undefeated. The demand for tickets was such that promoters began a series of doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden the following season and turned New York City into the center of the basketball world.

 

The next year Newsweek ran a story on basketball's rise to prominence and declared the sport was one "at which Jews excel."

basketballs and the jewsBoth the NYU-CCNY game, in which nine of the 10 starters were Jewish, and the Newsweek article occurred during the peak of Jewish prominence in basketball. Yet, the story of Jewish basketball is more than either a single game or article. Centered in New York, Jews were crucial to the development of college and professional basketball during the first half of the 20th century.

A New Sport Gains Popularity

Invented by Dr. James Naismith at a Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) in 1891, basketball quickly became a popular sport that expanded into the broader society. As industrialization, immigration, and urbanization drastically transformed America at the turn of the 20th century, many Americans saw basketball as an ideal sport since it taught teamwork, cooperation, discipline, and obedience.

During the Progressive era, the popularization of basketball among Jewish youth in urban areas primarily occurred both in settlement houses and at communal institutions. Jewish youth on New York's Lower East Side played basketball on playgrounds and at schoolyards. The formation of the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) in the early 1900s allowed players to gain experience in organized, competitive settings.

By the middle of the decade, CCNY established a basketball team full of local Jewish men. Players such as Barney Sedran, Ira Streusand, and Harry Brill honed their skills at City College and upon graduating, began to play in the various professional leagues in eastern cities.

At the time, the definitions of "amateur" and "professional" constantly changed. Even college basketball, which had roughly 200 teams by 1910, remained relatively disorganized and was certainly not a national sport in the same sense as college football. These chaotic conditions allowed Jewish players to find a niche in the game, as neither college nor professional teams seemed interested in restricting Jews from participating.

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Ari Sclar is a PhD candidate in history at Stony Brook University and an adjunct lecturer at Hunter College. His doctoral dissertation examines basketball's impact on American Jewish culture and identity in the first half of the 20th Century. He previously directed content for the Jews in Sports web site, first at NYU and then the American Jewish Historical Society.