With the Olympic games upon us, excitement surrounding the U.S. basketball team is palpable, as are the many questions. Will they return American basketball to past glory? Will they dominate international competition? Who designed those god-awful uniforms?
Lost amidst all the excitement, statistics, comparisons and arguments is the unusual fact that two of the top players happen to be Jewish. While Lebron James and Kevin Durant have distinctly different backgrounds -- Lebron's great-grandmother founded Hadassah magazine and Durant's uncle graduated from Yeshiva University -- the odds of two Jewish ballplayers simultaneously playing at such a high level is a rare occurrence indeed.
In celebration of this unheralded milestone, a look back at three of the greatest moments in Jewish basketball history:
Moses Malone uses questionable grammar but superior talent to dominate the 1983 Eastern Conference, split the waters in the Finals and deliver the Sixers into the NBA's Promised Land. Shockingly, scholars later questioned Malone's Jewish heritage when it was revealed he was in fact 6"10 and 230 lbs -- and not 5"5/162 as listed in the Sixers media guide. There was also some issue about the veracity of his accounting degree from Baruch College.
Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi scores five points against the Houston Rockets in a meaningless 17-point loss on January 12, 2010. The sound nobody heard was of the entire nation of Israel rejoicing in the streets.
#3: THE KIPPAH FOUL
In 18th century Poland, the heavily favored Minsk Menorahs were up by one point against the underdog Halinow Herrings with five seconds to play. Rabbi Elliot Goldenschwasser, known as much for his in-huddle lectures as his shooting skills, drove to the basket as time expired and claimed he was fouled. Both teams argued vehemently, with the rabbi insisting he was touched on the head and the opposing player denying any contact. The refs convened while the players all snacked at midcourt -- the Rabbi's wife had thoughtfully prepared kishka beforehand - when one of the refs made the surprising request to see Goldenschwasser's yarmulke. Sure enough, the black head covering had a trace of chicken fat -- used by the opposing players in those days to help with dribbling control - and the rabbi was awarded 2 free throws. With 1 hand holding his slippery kippah in place (he'd lost his bobby pin in the chaos), he calmly sank both free throws to secure the 1745 Polish Shpilkes Championship. Still clinging to his yarmulke, he was carried off the court by his jubilant teammates and into Jewish basketball lore.
#2: THE CONVERTED LAYUP
At a local JCC in Saugerties New York, the 1984 semifinal match between The Goldberg Gang (all partners at the same law firm) and perennial powerhouse Judah & The Maccabees was a mismatch on paper. Dominated by star center John Smith -- the titular Judah, a man whose Jewish provenance was called into question every year and the only player on either team over 5"8 -- the Maccabees seemed well on their way to another championship. Down by 38 points at halftime, Coach Applebaum of the Goldberg Gang ignored his own players and instead spent the entire time in the opposing team's locker room. Though what transpired has always been a matter of dispute, evidence suggests that the coach huddled at Smith's locker and explained the entire Torah to him while his teammates stretched and kept loose. When the game resumed, Smith refused to come out for the second half, claiming that his uniform didn't adhere to the laws of shatnez -- a little-known rule that prohibited the wearing of a fabric containing both wool and linen. It later came to light that Smith had actually converted to Judaism during halftime, complete with a circumcision by the Gang'steam doctor -- who happened to double as their beloved mascot Golem. With the absence of their star player and an intense theological argument culminating during a particularly crucial fast break, the Goldberg Gang won on a last second layup in the largest comeback in JCC history. Their 73-point loss in the Finals the following week did little to diminish the historical relevance of their earlier victory, and Smith went on to a brief stint managing the Harlem Globetrotters before becoming one of the biggest kosher caterers in Long Island.
#1: THE PHANTOM DUNK
Throughout the history of basketball, the one achievement that has always eluded Jewish players is perhaps the easiest of all shots - the dunk. It's performed less than a foot away from the basket, often with no defending player nearby and yet, for some mysterious reason, no Jewish player has ever been able to accomplish it.
There have been many dunk attempts, including the infamous "semi-dunk" by Hy Gotkin in 1947, which resulted in both a pulled hamstring and 3 separate lawsuits (all settled out of court). In 1961, Maccabi Tel Aviv center Nachum Cohen-Mintz successfully made it to the rim -- albeit without the ball -- but was later discovered to have launched himself off his teammate (and Talmudic learning partner's) shoulders.
The most famous of all the attempts, however, is the "Phantom Dunk" game that took place in Der Ternovertax Arena in 1919 Czechoslovakia. While much has been written about this particular play -- including Stanley Jerome's excellent and thorough tome "He did what?" -- controversy still exists to this day. Indisputable about that day are three facts. Alfred Einhorn was 5"10, a shade taller in hisshikheles. The baskets at the turn of the century were 6 feet high, later raised to their now official height of 10 feet. On November 12, the Czech gymnasium held 23 screaming fans, then the largest crowd to ever witness a European basketball game. Here's where it gets murky. Towards the end of a scoreless game, Einhorn apparently left his feet near the foul line and took off toward the basket. Since no player had ever "jumped" before, the crowd was stunned, as was Einhorn. Unsure of what to do next, the star guard and part-time ophthalmologist continued on his airborne journey -- overshooting the basket entirely. Some say he went completely through the hoop, while others swear they saw him bounce off the rim and catapult into the nearby Krkonose National Park. One thing is clear: Einhorn was never seen again. Nor was the basketball -- which, sadly, was the only one in existence at the time in all of Europe.
The Americans are the favorite to win Olympic gold in London. While the main competition looks to be the usual suspects -- Spain, Argentina and Israel -- the U.S. team's "Jewish connection" certainly won't hurt their chances. Should be a fascinating few weeks in London...
Editor's note: This post is intended to be construed as satire.