Washington Jewish Week Online Edition

When Jews could jump D.C. residents making film about basketball and Jews

by Aaron Leibel

Arts Editor

Jews” and “basketball” are not exactly the “horse and carriage” or “love and marriage” of the 21st century National Basketball Association — today there are no Jewish players in the NBA.

But it wasn’t always like that, say Washingtonians David Vyorst and Laura Seltzer. Their film, The First Basket, which documents the dominance of Jewish players on the courts in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s and the importance of the game in American Jewish history, will receive a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities next month and is slated for release in December 2003.

“Basketball was and is a reflection of inner city,” says producer and director Seltzer. “It was the only game you could play efficiently and cheaply there. Some poor Jewish kids used stockings as a ball and threw it through the rungs of fire escapes.”

Executive producer Vyorst continues: “There weren’t baseball or football fields for kids in the inner cities, but there were concrete and baskets.”

But basketball wasn’t only about recreation. “Basketball was one of the main ways the second generation of Jews established their American identities,” Vyorst notes.

Jewish basketball players became community heroes playing in labor union, Young Men’s Hebrew Association, community center and tenement house leagues, he continues. Some played in the semi-pro leagues that evolved into the Basketball Association of America in 1946 (the first basket in the fledgling league’s first game was scored by Ossie Schectman, a Jewish player for the New York Knickerbockers), which became the NBA in 1949.

Vyorst’s curiosity about early American Jewish basketball players was piqued several years ago by a radio program on the subject. He did some research and discovered how important basketball was to the history of the American Jewish community.

That history is important to both filmmakers who were raised in Jewishly active families. Seltzer grew up in Newport News, Va.; Vyorst, in Great Neck, N.Y. The parents of both were synagogue members (he, Reform, she, Conservative) and both future filmmakers went down the conventional Jewish path of Hebrew school and bar (bat) mitzvah.

Seltzer graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University and studied filmmaking at New York University. She runs her own Seltzer Film and Video in Washington.

Vyorst, who graduated from the University of California at Los Angeles and has a master’s from the London School of Economics, is a consultant in communications and politics.

Both District residents attend Adas Israel Congregation, and both are active in the Jewish community. She is a member of the board of the local chapter of the American Jewish Committee; he is a former co-chair of the National Institute for Jewish Leadership at the District of Columbia Jewish Community Center. The two met doing volunteer work at the DCJCC. They began serious discussions on the Jewish basketball players projects in the summer of 2001.

There will be a division of labor on producing the film — Vyorst’s first. Seltzer will be doing the interviewing of Jewish basketball players (so far, she has done 10 but plans at least another 20 to 30) and will work with the crews doing the actual filming. He will be “flushing out themes” and doing research. They work on the script together.

“We are interviewing not only the players but fans, friends, family, coaches, sports historians and journalists from the time,” says Seltzer.

“The players like the fact that it is a Jewish story. Most, if not all, have been contributors to their local Jewish communities, and they care about Jewish continuity.

“Most are simply the hometown hero, and they had no idea of how big the game was going to become.”

In the course of their research and interviewing, the two have learned of the anti-Semitism some of the players encountered. “The fact that for a short time, Jews dominated the sport contradicted the stereotypes people have of Jews as weak and brainy,” Vyorst explains. That contradiction tended to generate anti-Semitism, as, for instance, in the case of a sports writer who wrote that Jews were good at basketball due to their “cunning and wiliness,” he explained.

One player said that other players attributed Jewish success in a particular game or play to “dirty Jewish tricks.”

Basically, people ascribed Jewish success in basketball to “Jewish sneakiness,” Vyorst explains.

In addition to the grant from NEH, the film has drawn support from the Educational Film Center and the American Jewish Historical Society. The filmmakers are trying to raise more money from foundations and are appealing for help from private donors in Washington and New York, Vyorst says.

It would be a dream come true, he says, to have the film shown in theaters and aired on PBS or HBO.

“It’s no dream, it’s going to happen,” Seltzer says.