Film Review: First Basket

Jews played professional basketball. Who knew?

From 1880 to World War I, about two million Jews arrived in the United States, and one way they acculturated was through the new sport of basketball. On teams sponsored by settlement houses, labor unions and businesses, Jewish children learned the value of teamwork, loyalty and the two-handed set shot. Jews of this era became the game’s first stars, were legendary in the coaching ranks, and had a hand in founding the NBA.

But by the early 1960s, except for a coaching superstar like Arnold “Red” Auerbach, whose Boston Celtics won eight straight NBA titles, Jews were no longer much of a force in the game. Yet their early basketball history was important and meaningful, and it’s this story which The First Basket sets out to tell.

Beginning with the arrival of many Jews on Ellis Island, and their eventual settlement in ghettos on New York’s Lower East Side, director David Vyorst’s film swiftly describes how Americanized Jewish males, whose parents expected them to be scholars, soon picked up the sports ethos of the New World, and made basketball their own. The film is filled with first-person testimony from aged former stars, some of whom played on early incarnations of the Knicks, Lakers and Warriors. And it contains astounding factoids that seem to have been lost in the mists of time—like the fact that one Ozzie Schectman scored the first basket in NBA history (Nov. 1, 1946), or that coach Nat Holman’s 1950 CCNY team was the only hoops five in collegiate history to win the NCAA and NIT championships in the same year.

It’s all here. The popularity of college ball in the Garden in the 1940s. The late Red Auerbach, ubiquitous cigar clutched firmly in hand, discussing the early days of what was known as “Jew ball”—a style adapted to the short stature of many Jews which featured a lot of passing, ball-handling and cutting. There’s current NBA commissioner David Stern talking about seeing early pro games, and the history of the Philadelphia SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), considered the greatest all-Jewish team ever.

Filled with terrific archival footage, The Last Basket is engrossing and fun, but tends to go on a bit too long. A section about Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team, which has won five European titles, could easily have been excised. And the doc barely mentions the most famous Jewish hoopster of today, much-traveled coach Larry Brown.

But these are only minor quibbles, for the film easily justifies itself as an important historical document which provides another link in the chain of Jewish America’s rich cultural history.