Basketball and the Jews

A street game goes professional.

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The Rise and Fall of Jewish Basketball

While professional basketball remained a marginal sport during the Depression, college basketball became one of the most popular sports in the country. At Madison Square Garden, Jewish players filled the rosters of New York schools such as NYU, CCNY, Long Island University, and St. John's University that hosted teams from around the country.

The mainstream press began to focus on a specific playing style of New York schools based on constant motion, quick passing, and deliberate cuts to the basket. Both Jewish and non-Jewish commentators connected this style to the mental acuity and lack of size of Jews. This style challenged Western teams who played with the more open, fast-breaking style. The doubleheaders became testing grounds for regional supremacy.

From the late 1930s to the early 1950s, the Garden also hosted the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and the NCAA Tournament. Teams with prominent Jewish players won five of the first seven NITs. In 1950, Holman's CCNY team, with primarily Jewish players, won both tournaments. Called the "Grand Slam," the accomplishment was never repeated.

Along with schools such as Kentucky and NYU, however, the CCNY team was embroiled in a point shaving scandal in the early 1950s. Players accepted money from gamblers to either lose games on purpose or win by less than the point spread. The scandal almost destroyed college basketball and led to the demise of New York college basketball, which diminished a centralized Jewish playing presence in the sport.

The scandal was not the only reason for Jewish basketball's downfall. A formal league called the Basketball Association of America (BAA) had been established in 1946, and was renamed the National Basketball Association (NBA) in 1950. Jewish players at the time typically had other jobs during the season and were accustomed to playing semi-professionally. Few remained in the league, as basketball could not support their families.

Socio-economic success also contributed to the decline of Jews in basketball. Moving to the suburbs created more opportunities to succeed in mainstream society. Sports became less important and though Jews continued to play basketball, they did so in a different environment than the urban street culture of the heyday of Jewish basketball.

There were still a few Jewish players who made it to the top of the game such as Lennie Rosenbluth and Art Heyman in the 1950s and 1960s. But since the early 1970s, Jews have been primarily coaches, general managers, and owners in college and professional basketball. Among the most prominent are Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown, NBA commissioner David Stern, Dallas Mavericks owners Mark Cuban, and Washington Wizards general manager and former player Ernie Grunfeld.

The rise of Jewish basketball reflected American Jews' larger story during the first half of the 20th century. From immigrant neighborhoods, Jews sought out opportunities to join the mainstream. Success in basketball is just one story of achievement during a time of adjustment, stress, and occasional anti-Semitism. At the same time, Jews made a lasting contribution to the game. While few Jews played at the highest levels, the sport owes its development to its roots with the Jewish neighborhoods teams.

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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.