Check the rosters of the 30 NBA teams, and you’ll find only a couple of Jewish guys among them.
It’s surprising, if not mind-boggling, that at one time, Jews were everywhere in professional basketball.
The first basket ever scored in the NBA was drained by a Jewish player for the New York Knicks – Ozzie Schectman – in the first ever NBA game in November 1946, right here in Toronto versus the Huskies, no less.
The decline in Jewish participation in the sport since those heady days has been pretty dramatic, about as significant in the dropoff in other sports like boxing. Yet Jews continue to play an important role in the sport, at least at the coaching level.
One of the most successful hoops coaches that Canada has ever produced will discuss the Jewish involvement in the sport at an evening program at the Beth Tzedec Congregation on Dec. 4. , 7:30 p.m.
Titled, “The First Basket; Jews and Basketball,” the lecture is part of the synagogue’s “Jews in Sports” series.
The program includes the screening of the film, The First Basket; A Jewish Basketball Documentary, followed by a discussion led by Mike Katz.
Katz coached the University of Toronto for seven years, where he won both OUA and CIS coach of the year honours in 2007-08.
Prior to joining the Varsity Blues, Katz led the Humber College men’s basketball team for 19 seasons, amassing a record of 503-175. He led the Hawks to seven provincial championships and five national titles.
Along the way he was named Ontario Colleges Athletic Association coach of the year four times and Canadian Collegiate Athletic Association coach of the year three times. He was inducted into the Humber Varsity Hall of Fame in 2004.
He also served as assistant coach of the Canadian basketball team at the 1994 and 2002 world championships and the 2000 Olympics, which many will remember as NBA point guard Steve Nash’s coming-out party.
Katz acknowledges the Jewish connection to the sport is varied and longstanding, but he’ll focus on three aspects in particular.
The first is the rather colourful rivalry between two New York City players, Art Heyman and Larry Brown. Currently head coach at Southern Methodist University, Brown also coached championship teams in both the NBA (Detroit Pistons, 2004) and in the NCAA (University of Kansas, 1988).
Heyman was a standout college player at Duke who went on to a eight-year career in the NBA and ABA.
“They never really liked each other,” Katz said, right from their days in high school in New York. In college they clashed again when Duke played North Carolina, Brown’s team. In a famous incident in 1961 that can still be seen on YouTube, Heyman fouled Brown under the net. Brown retaliated, one thing led to another and a court-wide donnybrook broke out.
A second point of focus for Katz will be the influence on the sport by Tal Brody. A native of New Jersey, Brody was a star player at the University of Illinois who was picked in the first round of the NBA draft, 12th overall. But after leading the United States to a gold medal in the 1965 Maccabiah Games, he decided to forego an NBA career and instead signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv. He led the team to a European Cup Basketball Championship, defeating a Soviet Red Army team.
“He really put Israel on the map in terms of basketball,” Katz said.
A third aspect of the Jewish connection to basketball will be the unfortunate “role that Jews had in a not-so-positive way in the point-shaving scandal of the 1950s.”
The scandal involved Jewish gamblers and several Jewish players for New York-area college teams.
Back in the day there were plenty of Jewish players in U.S. colleges and the pros as well. These days not so much. Check the rosters of NBA clubs today and you’ll find just a couple of players, Israeli Omri Casspi (Houston Rockets) and American Jordan Farmar (Los Angeles Lakers).
Katz can’t say for sure why the numbers have changed so dramatically. It might be that when Jews were closer to their immigrant roots, there was greater incentive to excel than today, especially in a sport that has never required a big outlay of cash to play.
It’s hard to believe that at one time, Jews had such an influence on the sport that coaches taught their players the strategies of “Jew basketball,” and that was more of a compliment than a pejorative term, Katz said.