Basketball and the Jews

A street game goes professional.

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Much of American society viewed professional basketball as a dirty and rough sport. Professionals played in cages made of rope or chicken wire in order to protect the players from unruly fans and to keep the ball in continuous play. There were no standards for the size of the court or the size of the ball, and contracts were nonexistent. Players jumped from team to team for better pay, sometimes even between games.

Jewish players led teams that won championships in numerous East Coast leagues. Yet the players themselves were relatively anonymous. But after World War I, basketball became more stable, starring a new generation of Jewish players.

Moving to the National Scene

In the early 1920s, Jewish basketball spread throughout the country. As neighborhoods stabilized due to immigration restriction, American-born children began to assimilate and embraced America's sporting culture. Jewish players often played at YMHAs, synagogues, and community centers before and after their college or professional careers. But Jews were not always welcome in athletics outside of their own leagues.

The decade also saw anti-Jewish attacks intensify. When Harvard University 's president openly declared the need for quotas because Jewish students did not "fit in," he was in part referring to the university's athletic culture. In the midst of the controversy, as other schools such as Columbia, Yale, and Syracuse considered quotas, Yale University alumni demanded their coaches end discriminatory practices against Jewish basketball players in order to field a winning team. The American Hebrew newspaper wrote that Yale's recognition of Jewish players proved that sports could help Jews receive acceptance on campus and facilitate integration.

Jewish prominence in basketball also helped the game itself spread. Nat Holman, who coached at CCNY, also played professionally for the Original Celtics, a former settlement house team that had Jewish, German, and Irish players. Holman and the Celtics have been credited for popularizing basketball throughout the country in the 1920s. During their long barnstorming trips to play teams in the South and the Midwest, the Celtics wowed local audiences with their strategies, skills, and showmanship. They played more than 100 games per year and often lost fewer than ten.

The popularity of the Celtics convinced promoters of basketball's commercial appeal and led to the development of a national league called the American Basketball League (ABL) in 1925. Holman and other Jews played in the league until it folded due to financial problems caused by the Depression.

In the 1930s, Jewish entrepreneurs established independent teams such as the New York Hakoahs (From the Hebrew word for strength) and the Philadelphia Sphas (an acronym for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). Jewish players were prominent in a new ABL that formed in the early 1930s, but the professional game remained limited as a semi-professional and regional sport. Teams played in urban neighborhoods in the Northeast and players often both lived and worked close to their fans.

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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.