When Basketball Was Jewish: Voices of Those Who Played the Game. By Douglas Stark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. xii + 301 pp.
The Chosen Game: A Jewish Basketball History. By Charley Rosen. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017. x + 208 pp.
Douglas Stark and Charley Rosen are authors of several books on the history of basketball. In their new books, they explore the Jewish experience in the game, with an emphasis on the critical, and at times dominant, role Jews played in the sport's evolution. Stark focuses on Jewish involvement in basketball in the first six decades of the twentieth century; Rosen likewise covers those years but brings the story up to the present. Both works were written primarily for a popular audience, as made evident by the absence of scholarly accoutrements such as footnotes and sources, although Rosen does offer a few.
Stark draws on interviews with twenty former players, coaches and referees in his effort to illuminate the crucial role Jews played as the sport moved from the urban settlement houses to colleges, from the beginning of professional teams and leagues to the eventual formation of the National Basketball Association in 1949. He devotes a chapter to each athlete. He starts with legendary coach and player Nat Holman and ends with Dolph Schayes, considered the best Jewish pro hoopster ever, but most of the remaining interviewees are individuals who would be known only to specialists and fans. The narratives also provide a glimpse into the Jewishness of these players. While they were not from observant families, the players were self-identified Jews, proud of their heritage.
It is nice to resurrect the voices of forgotten pioneer players, but Stark falls short in demonstrating that their "stories are the story of basketball ... the search for an American game ... (and) the quest for an American identity" (xiii). Part of the problem flows from Stark's approach, as in each chapter he essentially transcribes the interviews. While this strategy allows for an unfiltered narrative of each player's experience, it impacts the readability of the work, as the stories frequently ramble and the players share similar backgrounds (16 of the 20 were from New York; most were working-class). How these repetitive stories link to larger themes within Jewish, basketball and sport history goes unexplored, and as a result we learn little that has not already been discussed in the works of other historians of...