WHEN BASKETBALL WAS JEWISH: VOICES OF THOSE WHO PLAYED THE GAME
University of Nebraska Press
2017, 301 pp, $29.95
In Farewell to Sport, published in 1938, the popular New York Daily News sports columnist Paul Gallico, when departing the world of sports to write fiction (The Poseidon Adventure later became one of his best-sellers), reflected on the wide variety of sports and sports figures he had covered. About basketball, he wrote:
"Curiously it is a game that above all others seems to appeal to the temperament of Jews, and for the past years Jewish players on the college teams around New York have had the game all to themselves... but the reason, I suspect, that [basketball] appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging, and general smart-aleckness..."
Gallico, to be sure, did not put a premium on avoiding ignorant stereotypes.
Without acknowledging Gallico--perhaps even unaware of his viewpoint--Joel "Shikey" Gotthoffer, one of the standout Jewish basketball players in the 1930s, echoes this perspective when recalling the rise of Jewish basketball players in another context:
"In my era, there were many good Jewish players. This is just my own theory. Jews by the very nature of the fact that they were constantly under some kind of pressure had to do a lot of thinking and developing of the mind in order to be able to live in society and act in society. And since there was so much hatred attached to them, they had to be able to outwit a person. And I think knowing that these kinds of conditions existed that you just acquired these things as you grew up..."
Gotthoffer is one of 20 players from the 1920s to 1960 featured in the oral history When Basketball Was Jewish: Voices of Those Who Played the Game, compiled by Douglas Stark, the author of several other books related to basketball. Basketball was invented in December 1891 by Canadian-American physician and chaplain Dr. James Naismith in the Springfield, Massachusetts YMCA. Within a relatively few years, Jews began to be represented in great numbers, most famously in the 1920s by the basketball star Nat Holman and his renowned Original Celtics team.
Invariably, stories of the men related in the book have a similarity, beyond the ubiquitous black knee guards, from Holman to the 1930s with Gotthoffer and Jack "Dutch" Garfinkel playing for the equally terrific Philadelphia...