From Ellis Island to Shooting Hoops
In the Catskills, gamblers first made the connections that would eventually rock the college basketball world and lead to the suspensions of several City College of New York players, as well as players from other schools in New York City and around the United States. No longer would such New York City teams as CCNY, New York University, and Long Island University dominate college hoops, as they did between 1935 and 1951. In a devastating archival clip that is part of the documentary, Nat Holman, the legendary CCNY coach, admits that he never got over his players' participation in gambling.
The Catskills gambling story could be a nice segue into some of the pitfalls of Americanization: Do any of the players interviewed for the documentary have regrets about their rebellion against their parents' religiosity? Did they maintain their Jewishness, and did they pass it on to their children and grandchildren? An exploration of these questions would have added another layer of complexity to the film.
Also, the final section of The First Basket feels a bit disjointed. Sure, Holman helped bring the game to Israel, contributing to basketball's globalization. But the link between Maccabi Tel Aviv's stirring victory in the 1977 European Cup semifinals against a Soviet team and the acculturation of American Jews through basketball, which is the film's focus, feels tenuous.
To its credit, however, The First Basket is a rare documentary that not only provides context (thanks to interviews with scholars of Jewish history), but also is fun to watch. The film's story, while covered in such works as Peter Levine's 1992 book Ellis Island to Ebbets Field (Oxford University Press), has not been put on celluloid in such detail.
Vyorst's interviews allow for a glimpse into a generation of Jews who shaped basketball - and who are proud of their accomplishments and their toughness. As Jack "Dutch" Garfinkel, who played for the Boston Celtics from 1946 to 1949, remembers with a smile: "I'm the first man who used the look-away pass in basketball. My passes were very tough. I broke a lot of fingers."
Peter Ephross's articles and reviews have appeared in The Village Voice, Publishers Weekly, and Antiques & Collecting Magazine, among other publications.