Then it was Madison Square Garden in the heart of Manhattan, where everyone knew they played the best basketball in the world, the place sold out and thousands of dollars and incalculable amounts of pride riding on each possession, the crowd frothing, cheering, heckling, building up a bubble of hideous noise against which the coaches' exhortations, so awesome in practice, were dull as buzzing gnats in that great gym. Irv and Jack rarely touching the pine but there, under the lights at the end of the bench next to which Nat Holman and Clair Bee in their wool suits and pomade hair would scream and plead their way into basketball history. Before that, summer in the Catskills, stripping off their waiter whites, comparing tips, walking from the kitchen to their rooms to grab sneakers and shorts and then to the courts to stretch and hit set shots until, just as it got too dark, the court lights came up and the stands started to fill, bankers and jewelers comparing the players below, their wives eyeing that evening's waiters in a new light. Jack letting loose his hook shot with abandon, a line drive launched from his shoulder, somehow banking off the backboard into the hoop, the hard smack of rubber on wood still echoing as the other team inbounded the ball. Irv stepping back for a set shot that took its time, framing grey mountains at the top of its arc, backlit by the hotel's lamps on the other side of the court. And before that the Catskill air so much clearer than in the Brownsville schoolyard but the game no different, chain link fences instead of long grass edging the courts, brownstones standing sentinel in place of mountains, sirens ripping through the breaks in play that once brought cool silence, but still Jack and Irv racing up and down the court like Olympic sprinters, like ball was inseparable from movement itself, plying their bodies more naturally than they ever did in class, at home. Jack elbowing his way through a crowd under the basket to grab the rebound, Irv already taking off in the other direction, seeing the pass coming before it leaves Jack's hands, throwing all of his 6'4" and curly mop up towards the hoop but at the last moment laying the ball in with controlled calm. The boys' feet dancing over the cement and between points, Jack's kid sister Cece on the other side of the fence, watching Irv gather his breath, and he, looking up, watching her watch.

Basketball is a city game, and in the '40s the immigrants' kids still owned the street and its courts.

Jack Isaacs made up for the faults in his game by playing with a frightening ferocity, half sneer and half smile, hurling the ball at the hoop like it had said something bad about him. His best friend Irv Sloan, tall for a Jewish kid at six feet four inches, played with form and finesse, making all the right plays but never nursing the fire that burns in a champion-a Cousy or a Sweetwater Clifton-always a woefulness behind his eyes as if bemoaning that the beauty of the game must be tainted by venal winning and losing.

Jack played with a tenacity he learned early on from playing father in the Crown Heights row house where he watched over his little siblings, while real dad Izzy bet horses and caroused at the Aqueduct. Irv played like his mother Rose was whispering her communist ideology in his ear, her principles living through his game each time he shied from the cutthroat play, from exacting the killing blow to another team.

Both lived in cloistered neighborhoods redolent of the Old Country, Irv in Jersey, Jack in Brooklyn, and they met on the land of the New World, the basketball courts. Their Jewish mothers would have never let them play football, and baseball diamonds were scarce terrain, but basketball courts littered the streets and Irv and Jack would take the BMT to Brighton Beach where the toughest games were played, where the two friends forged their skills and their confidence until basketball became a third language after English and Yiddish. If any Jewish mothers actually witnessed those games, their hearts would have beat like hummingbirds' when they saw how ruthlessly the children played. The rules then called for few fouls, and the vocabulary of scoring was still raw and formative, consisting primarily of the set shot (two feet planted on the ground) and the layup. Hitting a set shot meant getting an opening to launch by any means, jabbing elbows included, and laying the ball up meant manhandling one's way through a wall of defenders down a lane half the width of regulation today. Jack and Irv were easy targets at 6'3" and 6'4"-not just forwards, but big forwards, their size a promise to those more calculating in the stands, the scouts and coaches who stood to gain from the talents of a couple lanky Jewish boys. Irv stood out to Jack's younger sister Cece as well, but less for his playing and more for his carriage, his conviction, his reticent smile that seemed to work its way up from his gut and spread slowly, so lovely when it did and it often did for her.

In 1950, City College of New York called on Jack, Long Island University on Irv. Halfway through the century, college hoops dominated the American basketball. Pro teams were a middling affair, with teams and whole leagues financed by private individuals for profit or out of sheer ego (take the Cleveland Rosenblums). Pro ball was a weekend affair, and college ball the big draw, booting the New York Knickerbockers from Madison Square Garden whenever one of the city schools had a game. CCNY and LIU dominated basketball in the five boroughs-just the year prior to Jack's matriculation, CCNY had achieved the unprecedented feat of winning both the NCAA and NIT tournament in a single season.

CCNY still had the label of "the Harvard of the Proletariat" in the 1950s. Free to attend, it was the commuter school for the brightest of New York's working class, near three quarters of them Jewish. Their coach, Nat Holman, was already becoming a legend. Once a star guard for the New York Celtics, he had made the CCNY Beavers into a powerhouse by introducing one of the first motion offenses, weaving the ball in and out at a breakneck pace that stymied their staid opponents. Holman's uptempo approach fit perfectly with Jack's reckless ability, while across the East River, Irv found an equally copacetic fit among Clair Bee's Blackbirds.

Bee possessed his own formidable reputation. He helped to institute the 24-second clock, the three second rule, and the 1-3-1 zone defense, all of which would become tenets of the game. Irv fell into stride with Bee's conservative play-calling, which all ran through the team's heralded center, a quiet, 6'8" black kid out of Englewood named Sherman White. CCNY and LIU had the best teams in part of their egalitarian recruiting, welcoming the Jews, Blacks and Catholics that Columbia, NYU, and St. John's rejected as a matter of course. Jack and Irv saw scant playing time, but Irv still found himself with the most difficult job in basketball: guarding White during practice.

The predicament for college players was, as it is now, that even as they garnered fame and prestige for their schools, they never made a dime for their efforts. Nominally, the trade-off was a sterling education, but Jack got a postcard with a red 'A' at the end of each semester regardless of whether he went to class or not, and Irv's friends wrote his papers for him before he could even try his hand at them. With the college hoops business booming and the bookies multiplying, the fix was in at CCNY and LIU. All the players knew of the point shaving, and though it pained Irv, there was nothing to be done. The team was a holy entity, in right and wrong, and the latter had to be abided. Players came from poor families, with little promise of future wealth from the fledgling pro leagues, and summer leagues in the Catskills hardly paid for the suits and watches necessary to comport themselves in consonance with their fame.

In 1951 police arrested three LIU players for dumping games, including the prodigious Sherman White, three CCNY players, and dozens of other college players ranging all the way out to the University of Kentucky. In the aftermath, Nat Holman was suspended for two years, CCNY and LIU were demoted to Division III, and college basketball began a migration from the streets of New York out to the rest of the country, setting the stage for the next era of dominant teams: UCLA, Indiana, Kansas, UNC. College basketball in New York City waned, the pro leagues rose, and Jack and Irv saw that their time in basketball was over.

Irv married Jack's little sister Cece, moved to the suburbs of Boston and got a job selling women's day dresses across the Northeast. Jack started teaching, then worked for the NY Board of Education, with a stint as principal of Joan of Arc, one of New York's toughest high schools. The game eluded them. Irv turned to golf, yearning for a solitary occupation, while Jack found a new outlet in the inner-city schools for his fierce willpower. The vestiges of their run are few. The Brooklyn courts they scattered over are now the domain of black youth, the Catskills exhibitions died with the clientele, and their once-stalwart colleges never regained their lost prominence. But for a time they and the game were one, two friends present for its shaping into what it would become. They were among the first Jews of muscle, the ones found elbowing for rebounds in Crown Heights rather than soldiering in Israel. Notoriety came second for Jack and Irv: the first playing for vindication, for liberation, the second playing for the sheer art of the game-an aesthete whose canvas stretched the cement expanse of the court.

Refbacks

  • There are currently no refbacks.