“I wish I was a little bit taller. I wish I was a baller.” How many Jews have hummed that line, and not just because Skee-Lo dropped one mad rhyme?
Every time I come home from playing basketball, I lament my physical stature. Short, skinny shooters—that’s what we consider ourselves: shooters—can only get so far; even J.J. Redick is 6’4.”
“This is ridiculous. Jews can’t play basketball.” Oh, the wisdom of Eric Cartman. And that look on Kyle’s face? I know it. But what if there was an era when Jews dominated basketball, when the chosen game strategy was known as Jewball, when a guy who was only 5’4,” barely taller than Mugsy Bogues (pictured with Manute Bol) and half a foot shorter than me, could be such an overwhelming force that he would be considered one of the greatest players in the game?
There was, and I wrote about it at length in this week’s Jewish Journal. Here’s an excerpt:
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame includes a handful of Jews. Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach, the legendary Celtics coach who won nine NBA titles in 11 years and helped integrate the game; Nat Holman, a visionary playmaker who was widely considered the greatest player of the 1920s; and Barney Sedran, who at 5-foot-4 is the shortest member of the hall. Moses Malone, though a Hall of Famer, was not among the renowned Members of the Tribe.
“Consider this,” said Dolph Schayes, another Hall of Famer who starred at New York University in the mid-1940s, “our greatest rival was St. John’s, which was a Catholic institution, and two of their best players were Hy Gotkin and Harry Boykoff. Every college in New York wanted Jewish players. Jews dominated the sport.”
Back then basketball was, in many ways, a different sport. “Today if the fans saw motion pictures of our play, they would laugh probably because the game was played below the basket, not above it,” said Schayes, who went on to be a 12-time NBA All-Star for the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA’s 1966 coach of the year.
Speed and intelligence and precision took precedence over strength and size and athleticism. Not surprisingly, some found cause to denigrate Jewish basketball success.
“The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background,” the sports editor of the New York Daily News, Paul Gallico, wrote in the 1930s, “is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.”
In fact, Jewish excellence on the hardwood had more to do with sociology than biology. Like boxing, which Jews also excelled at, basketball was a favored sport of the inner city, and in the first half of the 20th century, few areas were more urban than New York’s Lower East Side, where Jews were so poor they often rolled up newspaper for their ball and used a fire escape ladder as their basket. The neighborhood was a factory for basketball talent.
Indeed, of the 110 inductees to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, N.Y., about one-third were basketball players, coaches or commentators.
“This is heritage in a way you don’t think about it,” said Alan Freedman, who, as the hall’s director, travels the country and talks to children about the Jewish sports stars of the last 100 years. “If someone had done this for me, I probably would have gone to Hebrew school and not cut so much.”
But by 1999, the NBA’s only Jewish player was retiring, and for the next seven years the league would remain Jew free. Then in 2006, a talented point guard from the San Fernando Valley, from UCLA, from a mixed ethnic and racial background, was taken in the first round by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Today Jordan Farmar, the focus of my story about basketball’s Jewish roots, remains the only dual Member of the Tribe and of the National Basketball Association. He doesn’t consider himself religious and doesn’t celebrate Jewish holidays, but Farmar also doesn’t shy from his Jewish heritage and upbringing:
“People see me as somebody they can relate to,” said Farmar, whose mother is Jewish and father, who is black, is Christian. “It’s not something I even think about. It’s more them relating to me; just me representing them and their people and what they believe and stand for. I don’t make a big deal about it. I don’t deny it or don’t stress it. I just live my life and be who I am.”
Jews had been looking for a while for their Jewish Jordan—remember Tamir Goodman?—and they have taken a lot of pride in Jordan Farmar’s success. Personally, I’ve pulled for Farmar not just because he’s a Bruin but because, like Brewers’ slugger Ryan Braun, he gives hope to short, scrawny, poor-sighted Jews everywhere. I even found myself rooting for the Lakers during the NBA Finals last year (truly shocking) and hoping that Farmar would deliver them from the Boston Celtics.
But the back-up point guard struggled through a tough season, complete with the first serious injury of his career and diminished playing time. Last season he averaged more than 20 minutes and nine points per game; in the opening playoff series against the Utah Jazz, Farmar has played a grand total of eight minutes in four games, including zero in the last two, and has scored just two points.
It’s unlikely he’ll get more time in Game Five tonight. But we can certainly hope.