For those of you with teams in the tournament, or whose brackets are still alive, enjoy the weekend. I’ve been sitting shiva for my team of choice, the Kansas Jayhawks, but thought it would be good to get a basketball-related post out while I had the chance.
In honor of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four, which takes place this weekend in Atlanta, I want to commemorate the years when Jewish players were an important part of collegiate basketball. As basketball grew in popularity during the first half of the twentieth century, it became especially popular with working class kids in urban areas where cold winters and a scarcity of sports fields made other sports less accessible. Of course, Jewish boys were no less enamored of the sport than anyone else. In the 1930s, young Jewish talent coming out of New York City established area schools like NYU, CCNY and Long Island University as early powerhouses in the history of the college game, which attracted large audiences well before professional leagues took shape. By the 1950s, Jewish players—some from northern cities and some homegrown—regularly played for universities across the South.
A quick perusal of Vanderbilt rosters from the 1950s, for example, yields Al Weiss, Thomas Grossman and Ralph Schulman. While I don’t know much about Weiss or Grossman and cannot guarantee that they are Jewish, Ralph Schulman is a different story. In an oral history from 2010, Nashville’s Betsy Chernau recalled going to a ZBT dance with Schulman, who she knew from high school. In fact, she met her eventual husband, Stan Chernau, at that party. Stan had grown up in Chicago and played for the freshman basketball team at the time.
The most famous Jewish players at southern schools were probably Lennie Rosenbluth, who led the University of North Carolina to its first national championship in 1957, and Art Heyman, who played for Duke and starred on the school’s first Final Four team in 1963.
By that time, though, the era of Jewish basketball was coming to a close. Both racial integration and the growing popularity of the sport made college basketball more competitive, and Jewish players were soon represented in numbers that better reflect our actual population. While basketball is no longer a niche sport for Jewish athletes, we still see the occasional Danny Schayes, Jake Cohen or Jordan Farmar, and it is good to remember the Jewishness of these players would have been less exceptional in earlier decades.