By GORDON GLANTZ
GORDONVILLE – It’s hard to believe now, but basketball – yes, basketball – was once considered “the Jewish man’s game.”
So much so that, the years between the World Wars, when quotas against Jews at colleges were commonplace, alumni at Ivy League schools lobbied for lenience when it came to Jewish basketball players so that they could gain an edge.
A newspaper of the time once opined that it was the “perfect sport” for Jews because it didn’t require much height or athleticism and was a game based on deception, where players could connive their way to victory.
They actually meant it as a compliment, too!
At least it was accurate … not!
In reality, since most Jews lived in cities – and since baseball and football were considered rural sports – the confines of gymnasium allowed for excelling at both basketball and boxing.
This included basketball Hall of Famers Marty Freidman, Nat Holman and Barney Sedran.
In the days long before the NBA, or any real organized professional leagues, All-Jewish teams would barnstorm, particularly after the stock market crash of 1929. The most famous is the Philadelphia SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). They would often win the game (and the winner’s share) and were then summarily chased to the one car they used to travel around in until they safely reach their next destination.
Some of those notables were: Petey Rosenberg, Leo Gottleib, Howard Rosan, Si Boardman, Moe Goldman, Inky Lautman, Fishy Rabin and Louis Spindell.
The SHAS/Sphas (also known as The Hebrews and The Wandering Jews) played until 1949, primarily as a exhibition team, but were disbanded in part because they defeated the Harlem Globetrotters on multiple occasions.
The SPHAS/Sphas (pictured above in their early years) also won seven championships between 1933-1934 and 1944-45 in one of the several pro leagues, this one being the ABL, as well as several title in other smaller leagues.
After World War II, the fly-by-night professional leagues coalesced into what we now as the NBA, with Jews well-represented. As matter of fact, SPHAS alum Ossie Schectman is credited with having scored the first basket in the BBA (Basketball Association of America in 1946. This league was the direct forerunner of NBA.
For purposes of this drill, selecting the All-time All-Jewish Basketball Team, we will focus on professional basketball (NBA, ABA and maybe an overseas guy or two).
Head Coach: Red Auerbach
Notes: I may never get served a cheese steak here in Philly again, but the evidence in overwhelming for the cigar-smoking pioneer who made the Boston Celtics a dominant force. Auerbach may not only be the best Jewish coach of all time, but the best coach of all time, period.
As a coach, which included stints with the Washington Capitols and Tri-Cities Blackhawks, Auerbach set NBA records with 938 wins and nine titles. After his coaching retirement in 1966, he served as president and front office executive of the Celtics until his death. As general manager and team president of the Celtics, he won an additional seven NBA titles for a grand total of 16 in a span of 29 years and making him one of the most successful team officials in the history of North American professional sports.
Auerbach also played college basketball at George Washington University and was credited with breaking the color barrier in the NBA in 1950 by drafting Chuck Cooper in 1950 and have all-black starting five in 1964. In 1966, he made Bill Russell the first black head coach in North American sports.
Assistant Coach: Red Holzman. Auerbach was voted the best coach in NBA history and Holzman was not too far behind at No. 4. He is best known as the head coach of the Knicks from 1967-82. They won championships in 1970 and 1973.
While Auerbach was also a solid college player in his own right at George Washington, Holzman was an outstanding player who might’ve warranted consideration on the roster below if not for his coaching prowess. He was a star in the old NBL, winning two titles (1946, 1951). He was Rookie of the Year in 1946. That same year, he was first-team All-NBL (also in 1948, while being voted to the second team in 1947).
The Starting Five
Center: Neal Walk
Notes: In addition to being the only human being on earth hairier than myself, the 6-10 Walk (pictured above) had a decent NBA career after being drafted second overall in 1969 by the Phoenix (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, then known as Lew Alcindor, went first to the Milwaukee Bucks). He hit his peak in the 1972-73 season, averaging 20.2 points and 12.4 rebounds per game (Charles Barkley is the only other player in Suns’ franchise history to average a double-double). The second half of his 8-year NBA career saw a significant drop in production, after which he finished up his playing days with three seasons in Israel and one Italy. His NBA career averages were 12.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2,1 assists per game.
Forwards: Dolph Schayes, Amare Stoudemire
Notes: This is clearly the strength of the team. Schayes (he went by Dolph because his birth name was Adolph), is universally considered the best Jewish basketball player. Stoudemire, who had an outstanding NBA career before moving on to player overseas (including Israel). There is no real DNA proof that he is ethnically Jewish, but he is fully convinced that he is and is certainly a better religious Jew than I am.
While both Schayes (pictured above) and Stoudemire are power forwards, they are head and shoulders above the other forwards on the roster and deserve starting nods. We’ll put Schayes at power forward and Stoudemire at small forward.
A native of the Bronx, the 6-8 Schayes played his college hoops at NYU and then embarked on a pro career in which he was a 12-time NBA All-Star. Selected to the Hall of Fame in 1973, he was chosen for the following NBA anniversary teams – 25th, 50th and 75th. He won a league title in 1955 with the Syracuse Nationals, the team for the majority of a 15-year career (ended with the 76ers) that saw him post career averages of 18.5 points, 12.1 rebounds and 3.1 assists. He led the league in various categories multiple times, including pacing the circuit scoring in 1957-58 and 24.9 points per game and rebounding in 1950-51 (16.4 per game). Not to be confused with Ben Simmons, he led the league in free throw percentage three times.
The 6-10 Stoudemire, who lists dual citizenship with the U.S.A. and Israel, was a six-time NBA All-Star and was Rookie of the Year in 2003. For his 15-year NBA career, which was followed up with more accolades while playing in Israel, he averaged 18.9 points per game to go along with 7.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks.
With all due respect to Walk, Stoudemire will be jumping center to start games.
Guards: Larry Brown, Tal Brody
Notes: We all know Brown for his Hall of Fame coaching exploits, and those will earn him a role here as a player-assistant on Auerbach’s staff, but he was also one of the best point guards in the early days of the ABA, leading the league in assists three of the five years he played while averaging 11.1 points per game. He also quarterbacked the 1964 Olympic team to gold after a stellar college career wooing the Southern Belles at North Carolina (Dean Smith was also the Olympic coach).
The 6-1 Brody (pictured above) is a more controversial pick here as the shooting guard. Like Brown, he never played in the NBA, even though he was drafted 11th overall out of Illinois (second-team All-American) by the Baltimore Bullets (now Washington Wizards). He instead became the founding father of basketball in Israel.
In 1977, after returning to stateside to fulfill his military service and play for the U.S, National Team, he led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the European Championship. Much like the famed Miracle On Ice U.S. Olympic ice hockey team of 1980, Brody spearheaded a win over the heavily favored Soviet Red Army tea, (CSKA Moscow).
Records show him averaging 19.2 points per game in the Israeli League, where he won 10 championships. He averaged 17.0 per game in EuroLeague play and 15.6 in FIBA International Competitions.
Although the Soviet Union refused to play Israel again after their humbling loss, Soviet great Sergei Belov called Brody one of the best players he ever competed against.
In The Rotation:
Rudy LaRusso: If not for Stoudemire’s ethnic awakening, this 6-8 1959 Dartmouth grad would easily be in the lineup next to Schayes. As it is, we have ourselves a forceful forward-center off the pine. Don’t let the last name fool you. LaRusso (pictured above) was the vintage Brooklyn mutt. He had an Italian dad and a Jewish mother. LaRusso was raised in the faith (and her chicken soup). “Roughhouse Rudy,” as he was called, played most of his career in the 1960s on some talented Lakers’ teams. A five-time all-star, he saved his best for last, at least statistically, while finishing with the Warriors. In his second to last season, 1967-68, he averaged a career-high 21.8 points per game. The following year, while being named to the All-Defensive team, he averaged 20.7 points per game. For his career, he averaged 15.6 points and 9.4 rebounds.
Danny Schayes: The son of Dolph was never quite the player his dad was but, to be fair, the 6-11 Syracuse product (and 11th overall pick in 1981) played in a different era. In 1987-88, he averaged 13.9 points and 8.2 rebounds for Denver. However, what would have been solid career numbers diminished to 7.7 points and 5.0 rebounds when he hung on as a deep reserve from the early 90s until the of the decade. Part of his motivation, he said, was knowing retirement would have left a league was once loaded with Jewish players with none. Talk about a mensch, huh?
Art Heyman: The 6-5 Duke product, gives us flexibility as a swingman. Yet another New York product who went to the ACC, where he battled it out with Brown’s Tar Heels, Heyman was so stellar on the college hardwood that he was drafted first overall in 1963 after being named Player of the Year by AP, UPI, Sporting News and others. Given the hype, it would be fair to call him at least half a bust. Heyman, known for his temper tantrums, saw a decrease in playing time after making the NBA All-Rookie Team for the hometown Knicks (averaged 15.4 points per game). Heyman left the Knicks for cups of coffee with the Cincinati Royals and our 76ers before moving on to the Eastern League. He then caught on with the ABA and won the league crown with the Pittsburgh Pipers in 1968, averaging more than 20 points per game. We could call him … “The Jew who saved Pittsburgh.” … All told, his professional averages were 13.0 points, 4.7 board and 2.8 assists.
Steve Chubin: This 6-3 New York native went North to play his college hoops at Rhode Island. He was selected by the Warriors in the third round of the 1966 draft, which was far from a guaranteed job. After playing a year in Italy (scoring 34 points in the EuroLeague finals), he came back to stateside to join the Anaheim Amigos of the ABA. In addition to averaging 18.2 points per game in 1967-68, the crowd favorite (known as “Chube”) was second in the circuit behind Brown in assists per game (4.7). He went on to play 226 games in the ABA (career averages of 12.8 points and 3.9 assists) for multiple teams before finishing up his career in Israel and winning several championships.
Rounding Out The Roster
Max “Slats” Zaslofsky: Unique in that the 6-2 Brooklyn native (pictured above) played at St. John’s, a Catholic school, he was a standout in the early days of the NBA (all-league four times). Before the NBA, he was just 21 when he paced the BBA in scoring in 1947-48 (21.0) and led the NBA in free throw percentage (.843) in 1949-50. For his 12-year career, he averaged 14.8 points and 2.0 assists per game.
Bob Gross: The 6-6 small forward should be well-known to us 76ers fans, as he was a starter on the Bill Walton-led Portland Trailblazers’ team that beat the Sixers in the 1977 finals, 4-2, after the Sixers rolled in the first two games. With the series knotted, 2-2, the scene shifted back to The Spectrum and Gross had the night of his life, scoring a team-high 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting from the floor. The Blazers won that game, and the next at home, to take the title. He was nowhere near that much of a scorer in his career but had a strong overall floor game (voted second-team All-Defense the following year). He retired in 1983 with career averages of 8.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.12 steals a game. His No. 30 was retired by the Trailblazers.
Jordan Farmar: A former high school Player of the Year, the biracial Farmar was raised by his Jewish mother and Israeli stepfather. He was a standout at UCLA who was drafted in the late first round by the hometown Lakers. A point guard, the 6-2 Farmar was a rotational reserve on two championship teams with the Lakers. He then played two seasons with the Nets (then in New Jersey) and posted respectable averages of 9.6 points and 5.0 assists (2010-2011) and 10.4 points and 3.3 assists in 2011-12. He played a year in Turkey, averaging just under 14 points a game, before returning stateside and rejoining the Lakers in 2013-14 (10.1 points, 4.9 assist, 2.1 rebounds). He finished his NBA journey with stints with the crosstown Clippers, Memphis and Sacramento. As a dual citizen, he also represented Israel in world play.
Just Missing The Cut
Omri Casspi: The 6-9 swing forward was drafted 23rd overall in 2009 and was the first Israeli to play in the NBA. However, in 12 seasons he never really rose above being more than a rotational player and went back to his homeland with career averages of 7.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1.1 assists per game. Highlights included playing in the Rookie Game on All-Star weekend and receiving a championship ring as a member of the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors (5 starts).
Ernie Grunfeld: His play before entering the league – and after as a longtime GM/front office type for 20 years after retiring in 1999 – earned him a known name that was bigger than his actual play as a pro. In college, at Tennessee, he became the school’s all-time leading scorer. He won gold medals with the USA in the 1975 Pan American Games and 1976 Olympics. However, his NBA career was fairly middling – 17 starts in 9 seasons with career averages of 7.4 points, 2.6 rebounds and 2.0 assists.
Miki Berkovich: A teammate of the aforementioned Brody in the miracle win over the Soviets, he – not Brody – is often considered to be Israel’s best ever basketball player. However, unlike Brody at Illinois, Berkovich was nothing more than a deep bench player in college (UNLV). The 6-4 Berkovich joined Maccabi Tel-Aviv basketball club’s junior team in 1965, and the adult team in 1971. With Maccabi, he won 19 national championship titles and 17 national cups and averaged just under 18 points per game.
WAITING IN THE WINGS:
It was hard to include players whose stories are just being written. A pair of Israelis – Deni Avdija and Yam Madar– come to mind. Both were drafted into the NBA in 2020, with the 6-9 Avdij going 9th overall to Washington. A point guard, the 6-3 Madar is still playing overseas after going in the second round to Boston. Through two NBA seasons, the 21-year-old Avdija has made 40 starts (32 as a rookie) and is posting moderate numbers – 7.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.0 assists – in just under 24 minutes per game. He and Madar combined to lead Israel to a pair of U20 gold medals in world competition, which surely caught the eye of scouts.
Special Mention: Jon Scheyer
This one is a projection on what could have been. The next coach at Duke, Scheyer (pictured above) was one of the most celebrated – and heavily recruited – high school players in the country before he chose to become a Blue Devil. He did not disappoint there, enjoying a stellar four-career that was capped off by a national title. Despite scoring 2,007 points over his stellar career, Scheyer was not drafted. His chances suffered another blow with a severe eye injury in a summer league game. He played in Israel, and tried it again stateside the following summer (with the Sixers), but he was not the same player and retired. Oy vey. He could have been an all-timer – at least for this team. As it is – and assuming he does well at Duke – he can join the coaching staff.