Pittsburgh, as we all know, isn’t a basketball town. With all due respect to the college hoops teams in the area, including the nationally ranked Pitt Panthers, it’s not a sport that’s really on the radar screen.
Maybe we can make it one by taking a trip to the past.
I’m not suggesting bringing the Condors from the old ABA back or even a remake of “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” No, I think we need to travel through the eyes of filmmaker David Vorst and look at the history of basketball as it pertains to the Jews.
I’ll give everyone a second to do a double-take. Jews in basketball? It may seem hard to believe, but not only do our people have a long and storied tradition with the roundball, we more or less dominated the sport in its early professional incarnations. And that’s a lot of what Vorst’s film is about, the first basket in the history of the National Basketball Association.
Back in 1946, Ossie Schectman scored the first hoop for the New York Knicks against the Toronto Huskies in the Basketball Association of America. The BAA went on to become the NBA and Schectman is generally considered to have recorded the first basket in NBA history as a result. (By the way, his Knick teammates included Sonny Hertzberg, Stan Stutz, Hank Rosenstein, Ralph Kaplowitz, Jake Weber and Leo “Ace” Gottlieb.)
The NBA, in effect, had grown out of semipro teams, settlement houses, playgrounds and college teams that found their roots in Jewish neighborhoods.
In many ways, basketball hasn’t changed. It’s still very much the sport of inner-city neighborhoods. Back in the early years of the 20th century, the residents of those areas were largely Jewish. As Jews made their way to the suburbs, they largely left basketball behind for those who stayed in the inner cities — one of the reasons African-Americans have excelled in the sport since.
It is this evolution, these forgotten Jewish stars of the game, that “The First Basket” uncovers. For Vorst, it was a labor of love that took six years to make, something that combined much of what was important to him.
“I had always wanted to make a film. I wrote a screenplay in college,” Vorst said. “I grew up as a giant Knick fan when Willis Reed and Walt Frazier were gods. Thirdly, at a time in my life, about 10 years ago, I was rediscovering my Jewish roots and was playing basketball. These were big motifs in my life.”
Vorst heard an interview with those original Knicks and that set him on his journey to making an independent film. He got to interview all the old Knicks, though perhaps his biggest thrill in the project was interviewing someone generally associated with Celtic green: Red Auerbach. He also got to talk to one of his idols, Frazier, on the floor at Madison Square Garden.
He discovered all sorts of interesting information, such as the fact that the Castskills had the same importance to hoopsters as the region did to the top entertainers of the era. The Borscht Belt was the place to find summer league action and everyone who was anyone in basketball played there, and mingled with the entertainment set, to boot.
All of it makes for a fascinating trip through a part of our people’s history that few know. The movie has been completed for a year now and in many ways, the real work has begun for Vorst and his team: Getting it shown in theaters. It was actually here in Pittsburgh, as part of last spring’s Jewish-Israeli Film Festival. It recently had a decent run in Encino, Calif., and will have a short, three-day showing in Ft. Lauderdale later this month.
There’s exciting news on the film’s Web site thefirstbasket.com. In the next couple of weeks, they will launch a forum/bulletin board section. Back before the NBA was first getting started, basketball stars were much more local, with leagues spread all over the country. They didn’t get the national attention today’s icons receive. One of the more rewarding things for Vorst is hearing from people who had a relative or friend who played locally, but didn’t know what happened to them when they moved on.
“It’s amazed me how meaningful [basketball] was for so many people,” Vorst said. “Now people will be able to interact with the site and the project [and share their stories].”
Now here’s how we can turn Pittsburgh into a basketball town, at least for a while. Go to the film’s Web site or e-mail Vorst at email@example.com, telling him you’d love to bring his film back here for an extended stay. More importantly — and perhaps before you send that email — try to find a theater willing to give some screen time. Considering the size of the Jewish community here and how we tend to support projects like this one, I have to think someone out there would be willing to give it a shot. It may have been a labor of love, says Vorst, but it hasn’t always been easy.
“It’s a tough environment for small, independent films right now, even though this has a built-in audience,” he said.
Lets show him we’ve got the built-in audience to make this a local success. Either that or I’m calling Julius Erving about that “Fish” remake.
(Jonathan Mayo, The Chronicle’s sports columnist and a staff writer for MLB.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)