Though hardly the first testament to Jewish physicality, which is as old as Samson, David Vyorst’s clear-eyed, jaunty documentary briskly walks us through the history of American Jews in basketball, a sport many believe belongs to blacks and very tall white goyim. Along with boxing, the low-cost sport served as a major avenue of upward mobility and cultural assimilation for working-class Jewish immigrants, beginning with the Settlement House teams on the Lower East Side in the early 20th century and progressing through the professional leagues all the way to the NBA. Narrated by actor Peter Riegert, with period footage and lively testimony from sports historians and wonderful old gents in New York and Florida (including the late, irrepressibly belligerent Red Auerbach) who once played or coached, The First Basket is more than a triumphalist screw-you to those who think Jews don’t play sports. Vyorst skirts neither the anti-Semitism that attended Jewish success in basketball (one journalist blithely concluded in print that it was the ideal sport for Jewish trickery and deceit) nor the culpability of Jews and blacks in the point-shaving scandals that rocked City College and other urban universities. With success and suburbanization, Jews drifted away from this quintessentially inner-city sport, and today, Jews play pro basketball mainly in Israel, where the sport is “huge.” But, as one commentator from within the tribe gleefully notes, basketball, like crime and entertainment, was one of the easiest ways for a Jew to become an American.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 29, 2008