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Film tells story of 1920s Jewish athletes

November 14, 2008 |  2:00 pm

Photographs from Laemmle/Zeller Films

A Jewish basketball team from 1921-22.

'First Basket' honors Jewish athletes

Film documents the early days of organized basketball.

By Gary Goldstein

November 9, 2008

Inky Lautman of he Philadelphia SPHAS,
about 1939-40.
Did you hear the one about the Jewish basketball legends?

No, that's not the intro to a Jackie Mason joke or fodder for a Mel Brooks movie, but the basis of the perception-altering new documentary "The First Basket," opening Friday in Los Angeles.

Produced and directed by David Vyorst, the movie takes a comprehensive look at the early days of basketball and the profound influence that Jewish players, mostly sons of Eastern European immigrants, had on what is now considered the world's second most popular sport (soccer is first). As narrator Peter Riegert asks at the start of the film, "Who knew?"

The movie features a wide range of nostalgic archival footage and memorabilia, plus interviews with such "hardwood heroes" as original New York Knickerbockers Ralph Kaplowitz, Sonny Hertzberg and Ossie Schechtman (who is credited with shooting the first basket in the NBA). It also examines such key cultural issues as anti-Semitism; the social factors that led waves of inner-city Jewish kids to basketball and the sport's aid in their American assimilation; how suburban migration shrank the Jewish presence in basketball after 1950; and the sport's latter-day resurgence in Israel.

Vyorst, a policy and public relations specialist, committed to documenting this multilayered subject more than 10 years ago. "I was rediscovering my Jewish roots and my love of basketball at the same time and the two had become powerful motifs in my life," Vyorst said by phone from his Washington, D.C., office. "Then I heard a radio interview with the 1946 Knicks and some of the original NBA players, all of whom were Jewish, and I just knew there was an important story to be told."

The first-time filmmaker, however, didn't anticipate some of the ambitious project's inherent challenges. "I didn't realize how hard getting images for every detail in the film and licensing each image would turn out to be," Vyorst said. With the help of various researchers and consultants he employed a "by-all-means-necessary approach" to unearthing and securing the vast archival material, a lengthy process that contributed to the movie's six-year assemblage.

Tracking down the surviving former pro players and coaches was also time-consuming, although infinitely rewarding. "They were the nicest old guys in the world. I wish they would've adopted me as their grandson," joked Vyorst. He added, "Getting to know [ex-Boston Celtics coach] Red Auerbach was one of the greatest times of my life." (The irascible Hall of Famer died in 2006.)

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