Basketball has long been known as “The City Game:” Unlike baseball and football, which require grass, open space and equipment, boys and girls can play basketball with only a ball, a hoop and a flat surface on which to run. Basketball is thus the ultimate schoolyard game. For decades, it has served as an entry point for lower-income urban youth to enter the American mainstream. This was as true for American Jewry from the 1920s through the 1950s.
Sidney “Sonny” Hertzberg, who grew up in New York City and played in the first game in the history of what is now the National Basketball Association, reminisced, “We used to fill a stocking hat with paper and pass it — there was no dribbling and shoot it through the rungs of a fire escape ladder:” Nathan “Naf” Militzok, Hertzberg’s teammate, recalled, “I never saw a dirt field. Everything was cement. ... We had two choices: either go to the schoolyard and play ball or hang around on the corner and get in trouble. So, we played basketball all our lives:”
Athletic scholarships in basketball served as a means of upward mobility for nativeborn sons of New York’s immigrant Jews. After college, experience on the court led to positions as teachers and coaches. For a talented handful, basketball became a professional career.
In the first game in National Basketball Association history, the New York Knickerbockers put four Jews on the court for the opening tip-off and carried six Jews on their roster. In that initial game, played on November 1, 1946, the Knicks won a thriller over the Toronto Huskies by the score of 68-66. Leo “Ace” Gottlieb led the Knicks in scoring with 14 points. Sidney “Sonny” Hertzberg captained the team. Oscar “Ossie” Schechtman scored on the first shot of the game — thus becoming the first man in the history of the NBA to score a point. Ralph Kaplowitz was the fourth Jew in the Knick’s starting five, while Nat Militzok and Hank Rosenstein played as reserves.
When the league was founded, teams tended to sign players who had roots in their communities. The Boston franchise, appealing to a city dominated by Irish immigrants and their descendants, named itself the Celtics. New York was home to America’s largest Jewish population. Even though Ned Irish, a Catholic, owned the team, the Knickerbockers recruited Jewish players from the New York area. Schectman was an All-American at Long Island University. Kaplowitz, a butcher’s son, captained the NYU team. Hertzberg, whose father worked in children’s clothing and Rosenstein, whose father drove a truck, went to the City College of New York. Militzok attended Hofstra and Cornell. “Ace” Gottlieb played at De Witt Clinton High before playing semi-pro ball.
In the 1940s, the “city game” was quite different than the high-flying version played today. Players shot and passed the ball with two hands. “In those days, if you took a jump shot;” Militzok recalled, “you would be sitting right next to the coach.” There was no such thing as the dunk, touching the rim was a technical foul, there was no 24-second shot clock and few players stood taller than 6'6".
Jews filled key positions in the league’s administration. Maurice Podoloff, former president of the American Hockey League, served as the NBA’s first president. Among the league’s first Jewish coaches were Arnold “Red” Auerbach of the Washington Capitols and owner-coach Eddie Gottlieb of the Philadelphia Warriors. Both Auerbach and Gottlieb were elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame, as was Dolph Schayes of the Syracuse Nationals, the only Jewish player selected among the top 50 all-time NBA players.
Player salaries in 1946 were inadequate to support a family. Ralph Kaplowitz signed a deal for $6,500 for the season, less than today’s average player makes for a single game. All the players had to work at other jobs during the off-season. For many of the players, a year or two of such insecurity encouraged them to find more stable careers. Hertzberg left to become a successful stockbroker, while Rosenstein became a technical sales consultant in the plastics industry. Ossie Schectman retired in 1947 to enter the garment industry.
Money aside, it wasn’t easy to be a Jewish player when playing outside New York. Kaplowitz recalled that when he played on the road, raucous non-Jewish fans would yell at the Knick players, “Abe, throw it to Abe.” Militzok said, “Playing in Pittsburgh and we came out on the floor, I heard them singing: ‘East Side, West Side, here come the Jews from New York.’”
Concerned that the predominance of Jews on the Knicks might hurt at the box office, the Knick’s management decided to change the team’s composition. They sold Kaplowitz’s contract to the Warriors midway through that first season and traded Rosenstein to Providence. Sonny Hertzberg played with Washington and Boston before retiring to become an optician.
In 1946, professional basketball, at least in New York, was not just the city game. It was the Jewish game.
Sources: American Jewish Historical Society