Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The First Basket

Today the NBA, and basically all of basketball, is dominated by black athletes.  For anyone younger than say 35, it has always been this way in their memory.  So it's pretty hard to imagine that the dawn of the NBA was dominated by short Jewish guys.  In fact, much of the history of basketball until roughly the mid-1950s was centered on Jewish players and coaches.

Did you know that Red Auerbach was Jewish?  That there are dozens of Jewish players and coaches in the Basketball Hall of Fame?  That a largely-Jewish series of teams at CCNY and LIU were a major college basketball powers of the 40s and 50s?

I might have known some of this in the vaguest of senses, as I hail from the town that spawned the greatest Jewish basketball team of all time, the South Philadelphia Hebrew All Stars (SPAHS), but it had been pushed to the back recesses of my mind by the high-flying acrobatics of today's NBA, and even college and high school game.

And then I had the chance to go to the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival's presentation of filmmaker David Vyorst's 86 minute documentary "The First Basket" on Monday night.   Vyorst did a wonderful job weaving together vintage black and white footage of mid-20th century hoops games, modern day interviews of many of the major Jewish players of the 40s and 50s, as well as contextual material on basketball, the Settlement House movement and Jewish-American history.  The film is richly narrated by actor Peter Reigert, who lends his nasal Bronx accent to the images.

The title of the film derives from the fact that the first basket in NBA history was scored by a Jewish player, Ossie Schectman on November 1, 1946 as the New York Knicks beat the Toronto Huskies 68-66 at Maple Leaf Garden in Toronto.   Yup, the first NBA game ever played was played before  7,090 confused Canadians in a hockey arena.    

Vyorst covers the men who made the NBA a force in American athletics, guys like south Philly's Eddie Gottlieb, who owned the SPAHS, the Philadelphia Warriors and ran the NBA into the 1960s.  He interviews Auerbach at length, who tells giant stories of little men though clouds of cigar smoke.  Vyorst spends a great deal of time detailing the accomplishments of Nat Holman, the Hall of fame coach of the CCNY Beavers at their heyday.  He also talks to about a dozen Jewish superstars of the 50s, many who animated re-tell the best stories of the glory days of their youth.  Their stories really carry the film and it was sad to note that several of them passed on before the film was completed. 

The film is a touch New York-centric, though it covers Philly ball a good bit.  There is an inexplicable 15 minutes devoted to basketball in Isreal, which seems a late appendage rather far from the core of the movie.  The Jewish-dominated points shaving scandals of the early 1950s are covered, though briefly.  The later scandal involving Jack Molinas is ignored completely.  David Stern appears, but with little context and one is left to wonder  who he is and why he is there.

All in all it's a very good film, but one is left wondering if Vyorst was making a feel-good film about the heyday of Jewish athletics in America or a true documentary.  It ends up feeling a lot more like the former.   It's a good film that deserves wider attention, and should be seen in the context of the contributions that the profiled pioneers made to today's game, and also a commentary on how much has changed.  Today there isn't a single Jew in the NBA, CCNY is a mediocre team competing among the worst of the Division III teams and LIU is an is a shadow of its former self on the D1 scene.

I'd like to thank my good friend Bob Arrow, the coordinator of the Philadelphia Jewish Film Festival for the opportunity to see the screening of "The First Basket."  Bob recently announced that he will shortly retire from his posting at the PJFF of the last six years.  I wish him all the best!

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