Unlike baseball, which remembers and cultivates its rich 100-year-plus history, basketball acts like the sport was invented just in time for Michael Jordan to sell his first pair of Nikes. However, basketball goes back to 1891, created as a way to occupy kids at a YMCA training school in Springfield, Mass., during the cold winter months. But director David Vyorst isn’t interested in how James Naismith devised the game. He’s interested in how pre-World War I Jewish settlers from Eastern Europe landed in New York and embraced the sport as a way to assimilate into American culture. In giving these Jewish hardwood pioneers their due, he honors a long-forgotten cog in the game’s evolutionary machine. But given how basketball has changed in size and demographic since the 1920s, it’s hard to imagine any modern basketball fan caring about this decent documentary effort. Cable television seems like its best scoring opportunity.
“Who knew?” asks narrator Peter Reigert in noting that basketball “rebounded off a few Jewish neighborhoods” before becoming one of the biggest sports in the world. In straightforward style (“straightforward” being a euphemism for “low-budget”), Vyorst begins with the statistic that, between 1881and 1924, more than million Jews emigrated from Poland, Russia, Austria and elsewhere to the United States. Six out of 10 came through New York, making the Lower East Side of Manhattan the biggest concentration of Jews in the world. Jews learned basketball in settlement houses, which were community hangouts offering recreational opportunities and social services.
Vyorst interviews plenty of surviving Jewish players from basketball’s nascent days. Many were interviewed in crowded settings like banquet halls, giving the doc a less scholarly, more on-the-cheap feel. Jerry Fleishmann, who played for the Philadelphia Warriors of the old Basketball Association of America (BAA), says he practiced by tying newspapers into a round shape and using the lower rung of an apartment fire escape as the basket. Soon, these young Jewish players formed groups and those groups formed leagues, starting with the BAA in 1946.
The section Vyorst dedicated to the beginning of the leagues is about as exciting as a game between the Miami Heat (15 wins last season) and the Seattle Supersonics (so bad they were exiled to Oklahoma City, where they’re now called the Thunder). Thankfully, he’s more interested in the disconnect between society’s concept of the Jewish male as unathletic and the Jews’ subsequent on-court success. This, according to various talking heads, was a function of Jewish family attributes like “teamwork, strategy and loyalty” as they transferred to hardwood. Being athletic, with its attendant striving for success, is what works in America. And for early-20th-century Jews to excel in basketball was a way for them to feel assimilated and become more American.
Another tasty, if utilitarian, passage is the brief foray into organized crime. Jews not only assimilated by playing sports, but also by becoming gangsters. Bugsy Siegel and Myer Lansky captured the public’s imagination not just by being brutal, but by running their operations like a business, which fed into Jewish stereotypes. This dovetails into semitic involvement in the college basketball point-shaving scandal of the 1950s—a testament to Vyorst’s desire to be comprehensive and not just cheerlead the Jewish cause.
The First Basket is a moderately interesting documentary about a moderately interesting subject. Some of Vyorst’s interviewees have since died (such as Red Auerbach), which creates additional historical importance. And the timing of the doc’s release could hardly have been better. November 1 is the 62nd anniversary of the New York Knicks’ Ossie Schectman scoring what is considered the first basket in NBA history. Vyorst was able to interview Schectman, who is still kicking (though his fast break skills have probably diminished) at 89 years old. In 1996, he was part of the NBA’s 50th anniversary celebration. Let’s hope the NBA doesn’t wait another 50 years to celebrate the Jews (and non-Jews) who lifted the sport onto their shoulders and made it a billion-dollar industry.
Director/Producer: David Vyorst
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: October 29 NY