Ossie Schectman, considered one of the best point guards of the 1930s and ’40s, died today at the age of 94.
Schectman was born in Queens, N.Y., and went on to play at Long Island University under the tutelage of legendary coach Clair Bee, winning the NIT Championship (then considered more prestigious than the NCAA championship) in 1939 and 1941. He played for the Philadelphia Sphas (formerly known as the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association basketball team) of the American Basketball League after graduating from college in 1941, winning a championship with them in 1943.
He played for Spha coach Eddie Gottlieb until 1946, when he joined the New York Knicks of the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner to the NBA. Although he played only one season in the league, returning to the ABL the following year, he will forever be remembered as having scored the first basket in league history, a two-handed layup against the Toronto Huskies on Nov. 1, 1946.
“Ossie was one of the pioneers of basketball, certainly Jewish basketball, in the 20th century,” said sports historian Douglas Stark. “His game was based on passing, moving the ball and high-percentage shots.”
Stark, the museum director of the International Tennis Hall of Fame & Museum in Rhode Island, is also the author of The Sphas: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team.
For the first half of the 20th century, Jewish players were considered among the very best in the sport, leading it to be known in some circles as “a Jewish game," Stark said.
The explanation, he said, had to do with a harmonic convergence: The invention of basketball in 1891 in Springfield, Mass., coincided with the mass immigration of Jews to northeastern cities. For a generation of children looking for ways to fit in in their new country, this new sport was ideal, Stark said.
“Basketball was inexpensive to play, and you could find places to play in almost any area. You could tie a bunch of rags with string and shoot it through a fire ladder on the back of a house. Jewish boys learned the game in tenements, on the streets and in YMHAs.”
Schectman was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.