When Basketball Was Jewish: Voices of Those Who Played the Game

When Basketball Was Jewish: Voices of Those Who Played the Game

When Basketball Was Jewish: Voices of Those Who Played the Game

When Basketball Was Jewish: Voices of Those Who Played the Game


In the 2015-16 NBA season, the Jewish presence in the league was largely confined to Adam Silver, the commissioner; David Blatt, the coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers; and Omri Casspi, a player for the Sacramento Kings. Basketball, however, was once referred to as a Jewish sport. Shortly after the game was invented at the end of the nineteenth century, it spread throughout the country and became particularly popular among Jewish immigrant children in northeastern cities because it could easily be played in an urban setting. Many of basketball's early stars were Jewish, including Shikey Gotthoffer, Sonny Hertzberg, Nat Holman, Red Klotz, Dolph Schayes, Moe Spahn, and Max Zaslofsky.

In this oral history collection, Douglas Stark chronicles Jewish basketball throughout the twentieth century, focusing on 1900 to 1960. As told by the prominent voices of twenty people who played, coached, and refereed it, these conversations shed light on what it means to be a Jew and on how the game evolved from its humble origins to the sport enjoyed worldwide by billions of fans today. The game's development, changes in style, rise in popularity, and national emergence after World War II are narrated by men reliving their youth, when basketball was a game they played for the love of it.

When Basketball Was Jewish reveals, as no previous book has, the evolving role of Jews in basketball and illuminates their contributions to American Jewish history as well as basketball history.


Every Jewish boy was playing basketball.
Every phone pole had a peach basket on it.

—HARRY litwack, in Jon Entine, Taboo: Why
Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We’re Afraid
to Talk about It

Within weeks after its invention in Springfield, Massachusetts, the game of basketball had spread throughout the country. Students at the International ymca (Young Men’s Christian Association) Training School quickly embraced James Naismith’s new game and brought it with them when they traveled home for winter break in 1891. Almost immediately, the game was played in ymcas, armories, and anywhere a basket, box, or crate could be nailed to a wall.

Cities in the Northeast quickly became hotbeds of the game. the introduction of basket ball (two words in those early days) coincided with the migration of millions of Eastern European Jews. Fleeing persecution and poverty, Jews immigrated to the United States seeking a better life. Mostly they landed in large cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, moving into tenement houses and Jewish neighborhoods. the children of these immigrants sought to shed the lifestyles of their parents and embrace their new country. Becoming American was the hope, and sports provided the vehicle to achieve that goal.

Basketball quickly became a favored sport. Easy to learn and inexpensive to play, basketball attracted young Jewish children. All that was required was a ball or rolled-up rags and a goal. Thousands of Jewish children played the game morning, noon, and night. a distinct style began to emerge—more running, passing . . .

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