As March Madness heats up, it’s interesting to remember what group of people used to dominate the sport. From A Renegade History of the United States (perhaps the best book of American history written in the past 15 years):
“The first professional basketball association, the American Basketball League (ABL), was dominated by Jewish players from its founding in 1925 into the 1950s. In the first two decades of its existence, the league’s winningest teams were the Cleveland Rosenblums, led in the backcourt by the “Heavenly Twins” Marty Friedman and Barney Sedran; the all-Jewish Brooklyn Jewels; the Philadelphia SPHAS, an acronym for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association; and the New York Celtics, who were led by the sport’s first superstar, Nat Holman. Born and raised on the Lower East Side, Holman was described by one sportswriter as “an artist” on the court who “direct[ed] the short passing, weaving, meshing, game” and “revolutionized basketball.”
The SPHAS, who won seven ABL championships, featured many of the best players of the era, including Harry Litwack, Cy Kaselman, Moe Goldman, Shikey Gotthoffer, Irv Torgoff, Max Posnack, Jerry Fleishman, Inky Lautman, Red Klotz, Davey “Pretzel” Banks, the son of a Lower East Side pretzel maker, and the pride of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, Harry “Jammy” Moskowitz. The SPHAS dominated the American Basketball League, capturing seven league championships in twelve seasons. A writer for the 1926 Reach Basketball Guide called the SPHAS “one of the greatest, if not the greatest combinations in basketball history.”
Sports historian Peter Levine found that in the 1930s and 1940s, roughly half of the ABL’s players were Jewish, and in a compilation of the ABL’s top scorers for the 1940–41 season, “36 of the 61 names listed are clearly identifiable as Jewish.” The top eight scorers that season were all Jewish, including the league’s leading scorer, the SPHAS’s Petey Rosenberg. Jews dominated college basketball as well. In 1921 the American Hebrew declared that “the immigrant boys” on college basketball teams had achieved “supremacy of brawn, speed and skill.” And in 1935 the Jewish Chronicle noted that in collegiate athletics, “basketball and Jewish stars are synonymous.” Indeed, through the 1940s, colleges with predominantly Jewish student bodies wiped the hardwood with their Gentile rivals. Between 1919 and 1956, the nearly all-Jewish City College of New York team compiled a 423–190 record, and New York University, known by some as “NYJew,” won 429 games and lost 235 from 1922 to 1958.
Many pundits of the time tried to explain Jewish basketball prowess as biological: Jews were naturally more dexterous and had greater intrinsic athletic ability than non-Jews. Others, such as New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico, combined this belief with more traditional stereotypes. Writing in the 1930s, Gallico claimed that basketball “appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartalecness.””