Ever since the turn of the century, when the new game of basketball had come into the cities through the settlement houses, the Young Men's Hebrew Association, and the Amateur Athletic Union, Tevye could have blared "Tradition!" in reference to basketball more aptly than to the Talmud. As Hank Rosenstein of the original 1946-47 New York Knickerbockers recently said, "Basketball was our religion."
Today the game is universally conceded to be the game for African Americans, with a token representation by white jumpshooters from the western states and Eurostars looking to buy a vowel. But the year 2000 marked the first time in the history of the National Basketball Association, and all the pro leagues before it going back to the 1900s, that not a single Jew was on a roster. In the middle-class flight to the suburbs what had been left behind on the curb was "Our Game."
Investigating the story of Kingston's surprisingly long and illustrious history in professional basketball, we will focus on "Our League": the Hudson River League (HRL) of 1909-12. Kingston played in other pro leagues too, from 1914 all the way up to 1940. The Colonials of 1923 were world champions, defeating the Original Celtics (of New York, not Boston) in a best-of-five classic. Among the hoopsters who wore Kingston colors are Hall of Famers Frank Morgenweck, Barney Sedran, Johnny Beckman, and Benny Borgmann, plus such stars as Harry Franckle and Phil Rabin. While not all of our region's top players were Jews, certainly, there is no telling this story without them, any more than you could tell the story of the NBA's rise without mention of Shaq, Kobe, Lebron, and other black stars so famous they don't even need last names.
Let's do a racehorse run through early basketball. Our national pastime of baseball has roots in this country going back to the 1700s but it is an Old World import. Indeed, the only major sports born in America are basketball and lacrosse - the latter created by Native Americans and the former by a Canadian physical education instructor at the YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts. In 1891 James Naismith nailed peach baskets to the balcony rail of the local gym and formulated a set of rules (no backboards, no dribbling, no limits to the number of men on the floor) that soon became subject to widespread tinkering.
Unlike the development of baseball and football, in basketball the pro game advanced simultaneously with the college brand, with the formation of a play-for-pay circuit in the Philadelphia area in 1898. As additional pro leagues sprang up, each operated under its own rules, as did the AAU and the NCAA at the amateur level. One of Dr. Naismith's original rules - that a ball out of bounds belonged to the team that first possessed it - led to bloody mayhem that did not cease until 1913. An early means of keeping the ball in bounds, adopted by several pro leagues, was to play the game in a wire or rope cage; though the cage was last used in 1930, players were still called cagers in news headlines for fifty years thereafter. And then there was the center jump, an action-stopper after each field goal or free throw; that somehow survived until 1936-37.
In its inaugural season of 1909, the HRL included teams in Kingston, Newburgh, Catskill, Hudson, Poughkeepsie, Troy, Yonkers, and Paterson (NJ). Apart from the inclusion of Troy, these franchises mirrored precisely the final-year cast of HRL baseball only two years before. In its three years of play, several of the league's teams (the Newburgh Tenths, the Yonkers Fourth Separates, etc.) were sponsored by local National Guard units, or "Separate Companies," thus transforming the patriotically grandiose, white-elephant Armories into basketball arenas. Probably the best of the early pro teams and champions of the HRL in its first two seasons were the Trojans of Troy. Led by Ed and Lew Wachter, they then abandoned the HRL for the New York State League, whose crown they also captured...playing on courts with no backboards, so all that all shots had to made "clean"! Many early pro fives also played in other leagues under the banner of other cities, or barnstormed like the Original Celtics, the Rens (Renaissance Five, an all-black unit), and SPHAs (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association).
"Professional basketball is a Jewish boys' game," said Eddie Gottlieb of the SPHAs in the 1920s. And for several decades it was, despite such formidable African American teams as the Rens and the Harlem Globetrotters, organized by Ape Saperstein in 1927 and still barnstorming today. Jews went on to dominate the new pro leagues that began to have national aspirations, from the American Basketball League (1925) and the National Basketball League (1937) to the Basketball Association of America of 1946, which three years later would change its name to the NBA. In what is now considered the NBA's first game, between the Knicks and the Toronto Huskies on November 1, 1946, Ossie Schectman scored the league's first basket on a give-and-go fast break. With Jewish teammates Sonny Hertzberg, Stan Stutz, Hank Rosenstein, Ralph Kaplowitz, Jake Weber, and Leo "Ace" Gottlieb, the Knicks won that game and finished the season with a 33 - 27 record.
What accounted for the basketball success of the Jews? 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 smartaleckness." In rejecting the clear anti-Semitism behind that analysis we are thrown back upon the obvious answer, that pro basketball provided a ladder to a downtrodden minority, as it would continue to do for other minorities. Yet the most intriguing answer may lie closer to Gallico's remark, and it played out in the Hudson River League of 1911-12.
In that truncated season the Kingston Company M squad, led by Harry Franckle and Sam Curlett, won the championship as the league folded on January 20, 1912, having played barely half its scheduled games. Kingston's 14-8 record barely bested the 14-9 mark posted by the Newburgh Tenths. This colorless regimental name soon gave way to the more descriptive "Bizzy Izzies," the nickname that the all-Israelite squad had first assumed when it won the New York City inter-settlement league "midget" title (under 106 pounds) five years running. Its players included future Basketball Hall of Famers Barney Sedran (Sedransky) and Marty Friedman, league-leading scorer Ira Streusand, and such other Lower East Siders as Harry Brill, Lou Sugarman, Bill Cone (Cohen), Joe Girsdansky, and Jake Fuller, all of them alumni of the teenage Bizzy Izzies.
This "midget" team - some, like Sedran at 5'4" and 115 pounds, were too small to make their high-school teams - owed everything to their coach, Harry Baum, who is not in the Hall of Fame but ought to be. Streusand explained that "as kids, we were all physically inferior. We were really midgets; hardly weighed anything at all. But Baum taught us teamwork and a new brand of ball and we ran everyone ragged." Sedran added: "He taught us a style of play which we carried with us during our entire careers. In fact, his style of basketball was followed by most of the pro teams." In 1983, at the age of 87, the legendary Nat Holman recalled that he had really begun to learn the game in 1908...when he was the12-year-old mascot of the Izzies.
Substituting brains for brawn, Baum transformed the plodding style that basketball had known ever since its birth into a sharp passing game with intricate crossing patterns that became the classic New York style. Instead of bulling one's way to the basket or positioning for two-hand set shots, the Bizzy Izzies pioneered the five-man fire-drill that presaged today's Phoenix Suns.
Amazingly, Baum never played basketball himself. Born in Austria July 18, 1882, Baum graduated from City College in 1902. He played one season of lacrosse while there and another three seasons at Columbia. It was while pursuing his engineering degree there that he agreed to coach the midget team at the University Settlement House on the Lower East Side. Because Baum's only previous athletic experience was in lacrosse, he based his approach to basketball on that game, with its short passes and man-to-man switching defense.
Leave it to a Polish Jew to blend one game invented by a Canadian with another created by Native Americans. In basketball history no better example of "an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging" may be found than Harry BaumBaum and the Bizzy Izzies.++