On November 1, 1946, in the opening game of the fledgling Basketball Association of America (BAA), Ossie Schectman scored the opening basket for the New York Knickerbockers against the Toronto Huskies. Schectman and his teammates Sonny Hertzberg, Stan Stutz, Hank Rosenstein, Ralph Kaplowitz, Jake Weber, and Leo “Ace” Gottlieb went on to win the opening game 68 – 66 and finish the season with a
33 – 27 record. In 1949, the BAA became the National Basketball Association (NBA), and Schectman’s shot is considered the first basket in the NBA.
In fact, several of the BAA and NBA teams had evolved out of the semi-pro teams, settlement houses, playgrounds, schoolyard and community center leagues, and college teams that sprung from the Jewish inner-city neighborhoods of the early 20th century. While the era of Jewish professional basketball players has passed, the story of these sports pioneers illustrates how the American 20th Century was shaped by the experiences of many immigrant groups.
The First Basket follows these Jewish basketball experiences, from ash cans placed on the stoops of brownstones, to the bright lights of Madison Square Garden.
THE FIRST BASKET is about:
- Basketball as a reflection of the inner city. The documentary examines the inner-city social factors that led urban Jewish youths to basketball, and their notable success in basketball from the 1920s through the early 1950s;
- The role of basketball as a middle ground for second-generation eastern European immigrants as they established their own American identities, and the corresponding conflicts between old world tradition and American culture;
- Anti-Semitism and Jewish stereotypes in the face of Jewish success in basketball from the 1920s through the early 1950s;
- The declining presence of Jews in professional basketball from the early 1950s onwards and the CCNY point shaving scandals of 1951, both against the backdrop of 1950s America, the globalization of basketball, and its immense popularity in Israel..
Part One: The 1946 – 47 New York Knickerbockers
As we get to know the players–Ossie Schectman, Sonny Hertzberg, Leo “Ace” Gotlieb, Ralph Kaplowitz, Hank Rosenstein–through original interviews, archival film clips, and rarely seen memorabilia from their personal collections, the beauty and grace of the early game are displayed through incredible newsreel footage and images from pro basketball’s early years as well as from the first game in NBA history. We share the rich experience of that first season – the dream come true of playing in a new professional league. We experience what it felt like to be a young Jewish American right out of World War II, traveling around the country playing professional basketball.
Part Two: Basketball Meant Being American
Between 1881 and 1924, more than two million eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived in the United States. The First Basket documents the forgotten story of how these new Americans settled in inner city neighborhoods and their children avidly took to American sports. Since basketball did not require open fields or expensive equipment it thrived among urban youth. We learn how sports played an essential part in becoming American for the children of these immigrants, and how sports provided Jewish youths with a way of proving to the Gentile world their physical strength, speed, and dexterity, in the face of traditional stereotypes of Jews as bookish and physically frail. The film then covers the conflict between generations, as well as between eastern European Jewish traditions and American culture that this engendered as we see that basketball became the most popular sport among this generation.
Part Three: The Development of Professional Basketball
During the first half of the 20th century, basketball became a staple of Jewish community life. Nearly every urban institution had a basketball team, from the Jewish Community Centers to the labor unions and department stores. The First Basket chronicles the evolution of these community-based teams into professional leagues.
Audiences meet and root for the neighborhood semi-pro teams such as the Dux, from the Brownsville neighborhood in Brooklyn; the South Philadelphia Hebrew All Stars (SPHAs); and local college teams such as CCNY (City College of New York); LIU (Long Island University), and St. John’s. We share the stories of Jewish community basketball heroes such as Nat Holman, Sammy Kaplan, Barney Sedran, Nat Krinsky,
Red Saracheck, Red Holzman, and Red Auerbach.
The film also examines the anti-Semitic responses to Jewish success in basketball. New York Daily News sports editor Paul Gallico wrote in the mid 1930s 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.” We see how qualities such as cunning and wiliness were posited as the keys to Jewish basketball success and how these kinds of statements were indicative of early 20th century America.
The rise of professional basketball culminates with the inauguration of the BAA and the NBA and brings us back to the original Knicks team.
Part Four: The 1950s to the 21st Century
The final section of the film begins by recounting the legend of Nat Holman, CCNY, and the 1951 CCNY point-shaving scandals. We see how these scandals had a tremendous impact on the future of the game as the NBA rose to pre-eminence.
The early 1950s produced tremendous changes in society as well as in basketball. The film examines the sharp decline in the number of Jewish players in professional and college basketball as well as the gradual disappearance of second-generation ethnic Jewish neighborhoods that had produced waves of players, as millions of Americans migrated to the suburbs.
The evolution of basketball from a game played with ash cans on tenement steps by poor immigrant kids, to a global cultural phenomenon is truly metaphoric of the American 20th century. The First Basket examines the incredible growth and globalization of the game, and looks at basketball’s tremendous popularity in Israel, where the Tel Aviv Maccabi team won the Euroleague championships in 2004 and 2005. The First Basket concludes by examining the excitement and pride Israelis share in those victories, and looking back at the history of basketball as it relates to the film’s subject matter.