The NBA’s intriguing Jewish history

It might come as a surprise to basketball fans to discover that the game has a rich if somewhat hidden Jewish history, one in which young Jews dominated the action on the court.

 It was a Jew named Ossie who scored the first points in professional basketball’s modern history (Illustrative). (photo credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash)
It was a Jew named Ossie who scored the first points in professional basketball’s modern history (Illustrative).
(photo credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash)

As the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs heat up, fans around America and much of the world are once again being treated to an impressive display of athletic prowess and on-court excitement.

As a game, basketball is both elegantly simple and excruciatingly complex, easy to grasp yet difficult to play consistently at a high level.

Indeed, for anyone who has ever dribbled a ball and hurled it with a prayer and a hope toward the basket, the precision, discipline and skill demanded by the game are readily apparent. 

For decades, professional basketball has been dominated by African-American players, with figures such as Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James becoming household names.

By contrast, anyone who takes a peek at the NBA roster will be hard-pressed to find any Cohens, Goldsteins or Rosenbergs. In fact, it is said that the only Jewish player in the league is Israeli-born Deni Avdija of the Washington Wizards.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Baylor vs Gonzaga (credit: REUTERS)NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Baylor vs Gonzaga (credit: REUTERS)

So it might come as a surprise to basketball fans to discover that the game has a rich if somewhat hidden Jewish history, one in which young Jews dominated the action on the court while also contributing greatly off of it. 

After the game was invented by Dr. James Naismith in 1891 at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, so that young people would have an indoor sport to play during winters, it grew in popularity, particularly in urban areas, where access to the kind of fields needed for sports such as baseball was far more limited.

In the early 20th century, more than half of American Jewry lived in New York City, and basketball quickly became a favorite pastime for many Jewish youth, with players such as Barney Sedran, Max Friedman and Louis Sugarman putting on dazzling performances.

As Charley Rosen noted in his fun and informative book The Chosen Game: A Jewish Basketball History, “During the first half of the twentieth century, many (if not most) of America’s most outstanding and most influential basketballers were Jews.” And it was Jews who helped to popularize the game, setting the stage for it to become one of America’s leading sports.

On November 1, 1946, basketball history was made when the first game of the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the NBA, was played between the New York Knicks and the Toronto Huskies at the latter’s home court.

And, incredibly enough, it was a Jew named Oscar Benjamin Schectman, known as “Ossie,” who scored the first points in professional basketball’s modern history.

Born in Queens to Russian Jewish immigrants fleeing antisemitism, Schectman was later inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, for his pioneering exploits.

That same year, the 1946 roster for the New York Knicks had so many Jews on it that it fell just shy of having a minyan, counting among its members players such as Sidney “Sonny” Hertzberg, whom the great [basketball player] Bob Cousy once said was like a second coach on the court.

SCHECTMAN’S STORY, along with those of other Jewish basketball stars of the era, was the subject of a 2008 documentary called The First Basket, which was directed and produced by David Vyorst.

Subsequently, other Jews, such as Red Auerbach and Red Holzman, went on to stardom as NBA coaches, respectively leading the Boston Celtics and New York Knicks to championship trophies.

By the 1950s and 1960s, few Jewish players remained on the court. As Vyorst noted in an NPR interview about his film, one of the factors behind the change was “a massive suburban migration after World War II of Jewish people to the suburbs.” With a growing number of professional and educational opportunities available to them, young Jews looked elsewhere for chances to succeed.

But that did not mark the end of the Jewish contribution to the game and its development.

One of the distinguishing characteristics of basketball today is the emphasis on three-point shots, which are taken from behind an arc that is 23 feet and 9 inches (7.24 meters) from the center of the basket.

Though not adopted by the NBA until 1979, the three-pointer was first introduced to a professional league by the legendary Abe Saperstein. Best known as the founder of the Harlem Globetrotters, this child of Polish Jews is, in effect, the father of the three-point shot.

After being denied ownership of an NBA team, Saperstein established the rival American Basketball League (ABL) in 1961 and served as its commissioner. Looking for ways to differentiate the ABL from the NBA, he instituted a number of changes to add offensive excitement, chief among them the three-point shot.

Although the ABL disbanded in 1963, the three-pointer was embraced by the ABA, which eventually merged with the NBA in 1976. And the rest, as they say, is history, with the three-pointer now a centerpiece of basketball.

Rising antisemitism and the NBA

WHY DOES any of this matter? At a time of rising antisemitism in the United States, it seems worthwhile to remind the public of the unique contributions that Jews have made to American society, including those on the court.

And that process of education should also include the NBA itself, which has been hit in recent years by a couple of scandals involving antisemitism. 

In March 2021, Meyers Leonard of the Miami Heat was suspended from play and fined $50,000 after he used an antisemitic slur while playing a video game on a livestream feed.

And in November 2022, the New York Nets’ Kyrie Irving received a suspension after posting an endorsement on social media of an antisemitic film that accuses Jews of being impostors who stole the identity of the original Israelites.

I am not sure to what extent today’s NBA players are aware of the debt they owe to the Schectmans and Sapersteins, the Sugarmans and Friedmans of the past. But it certainly wouldn’t hurt to remind them of basketball’s deep and abiding Jewish roots. ■

The writer served as deputy communications director under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during his first term of office.