Reviewed by Joseph Dorinson, Professor, Department of History, Long Island University Brooklyn
19 April 2018
Charley Rosen’s book, The Chosen Game: A Jewish Basketball History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2017) is a welcome addition to sport literature. It begins with a quotation from an African-American former pro player in 2014: “The Jews were the first ethnic group to embrace basketball, and it’s still a Jewish game.” Running with this salient theme, Rosen, a former college hoopster, pro coach, and prolific author, packs a ton of information in his compact narrative of 203 pages with multiple digressions. Readers familiar with Rosen’s previous tomes will no doubt enjoy his witty commentary, elegant prose, and self-deprecating humor.
In February 2010, author Rosen presented a paper at LIU-Brooklyn’s Clair Bee Conference, in which I also participated. Rosen regaled attendees with keen insights, vast knowledge: all evident in his latest book, minus academic jargon and disturbing clichés that often plague current sport literature. Charley clearly prefers a good story to an accurate one; at times, sometimes sacrificing facts on the altar of a compelling narrative. Several examples follow. He identifies Jackie Goldsmith with NYU rather than his Alma Mater, LIU p. 115). Rosen claims that Rudy LaRusso was half-Jewish on his mother’s side (p. 128). In fact, Rudy’s father was also Jewish, of Sephardic extraction; hence, the Italian sounding surname. He refers to CCNY’s Al Roth as “Fatty” instead of his real nickname, “Fats” (p. 101, granted a minor error). A more serious error confuses Judge Saul Streit as “the hanging judge” who sentenced Ethel and Julius Rosenberg to the electric chair rather that Judge Irving Kaufman, who earned that dubious honor. Streit did indeed hand down curiously uneven sentences to the “Fixers” from CCNY, LIU, and NYU who played ball with gangster Salvatore Sollazo in exchange for “filthy lucre.” Inaccurately, Rosen describes another star turned “dumper” Irwin Dambrot as a left-handed jump-shooter. Dambrot shot push shots, not jump shots, a later innovation.
One can also take issue with Rosen’s opinions. He argues that Don “Red” Goldstein, a superb player at Brooklyn’s Samuel J. Tilden High school and later at the University of Louisville, could not make it as a pro. Nonsense! Goldstein, raised by mute parents, elected a career in dentistry, a more rewarding profession in the early 1960s. In another questionable judgment, Rosen asserts that CCNY’s “sixth man” Norm Mager in their remarkable twin, unprecedented victories in both NIT and NCAA tournaments in 1950, was solely motivated by his hatred of imperious (but brilliant) coach Nat Holman for engaging in the subsequent scandals (pp. 109-110). In fact, money was the root of this evil, coupled with shame. According to his obituary in the New York Times, Mager deliberately never mentioned his nefarious role to his second wife.
Minus substantive proof, Rosen insinuates (p. 94) that Jewish referee, Nate Messenger with local roots conspired to defeat the heavily favored Washington Capitols in a semi-final series (1946-47) with his hometown, Chicago Stags. Later in the narrative, Rosen repeats a canard floated by the brilliant but deeply flawed Jack Molinas that everyone in the NBA was betting and fixing games in the 1950s (pp. 118-122). The only source for this assertion was Whitey Van Neida (p. 121). Repeating a dubious claim that appeared in his earlier book on Molinas, Wizard of Odds, Rosen charges that Jack even bet on his own high school team, Stuyvesant to lose the NYC PSAL Championship to Brooklyn’s Abraham Lincoln High School. Jack’s younger brother, Julie—my classmate at Stuyvesant—revealed that the only time he saw Jack cry was after that allegedly “fixed” game, in which Molinas failed to tie the game in the waning seconds when he missed a crucial foul shot.
Now, to the positive side. Rosen builds a strong defensive case for his tribe, “the Chosen” by taking on legendary Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp for his blatant anti-Semitism and hypocrisy over the gambling issue. He complained to his star player Dale Barnstable that a missed shot late in a game cost one of his friends $500. Moreover, Rupp colluded with bookmaker Ed Curd to gamble on a Kentucky-Alabama game (p. 103). Rosen also chides former Knicks, Charlie Ward (Heisman Trophy winner in football) and Allan Houston for blatant anti-Semitism citing Matthew 26:67 for assaulting and later killing Christ (pp. 94-95). Cardinal Spellman and Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan also elicited a rebuke from Rosen for shutting down the gambling probe in 1951 to exempt other Catholic colleges like St. John’s, DePaul, LaSalle, and Villanova for fixing games (p. 104-105). Based on an interview with CCNY Center Ed Roman, Rosen displays a heavy dose of rachmonis (sympathy) as he describes the redemption of those fixers who went on to lead productive as well as successful lives graced with a social conscience (pp. 106-111). Roman, while tutoring Rosen, then a Hunter College neophyte center, in pivot play, threw a vicious elbow into the sophomore’s face, breaking his nose and unleashing a bloodbath. Rosen forgave his mentor as tormentor (pp. 116-117).
In a delightful chapter, “Murray’s in the Mountains,” from which the above bloody encounter is described, Rosen displays a wonderful gift as stand-up comedian and sit-down writer. He relates “a typical day in a typical resort” that is hilarious, indeed delicious. Other confections from the literary table of Charley Rosen are mini-biographies of various hoopsters, coaches, owners, and referees with a powerful tragic-comic sensibility. A chapter on Jewish broadcasters like Marty Glickman and Marv Albert (ne Aufrichtig) merits attention, perhaps in a sequel to this fine book. His vignettes of Jack Molinas, Larry Brown, Art Heyman, and Neal Walk are apt to produces, shades of Sholem Aleichem, laughter as well as tears. Like an expert surgeon, he can eviscerate several sacred cows. Two of his principal targets are Arnold “Red” Auerbach (pp. 83-87) and Nat Holman (pp. 20-24, 107-108). Rosen deserves praise for rescuing old-timers like Louis Sugarman, Max Friedman, Barney Sedran, Henry Elias, Harry Fisher, Joe Weiner, Sam Pite, Allie Schuckman, Barney Sedran, Jules Bender (mostly Brooklynites) among a host of hoopsters including the SPHAs from relative obscurity. Rosen justly praises former NBA Commissioner David Stern for defending the late Connie Hawkins in a suit against his future domain, the NBA for a lifetime ban due to contacts—or guilt by association—with Jack Molinas. Stern and Hawkins won the suit that included financial compensation and freedom to join the Phoenix Suns basketball team. Perhaps Stern’s ascent was spurred by guilt. Whatever the reason, both David Stern and Charley Rosen deserve a dinner, denied to Red Buttons. In the last analysis, reading Charley Rosen proved a guilty pleasure. Deeply embedded in Jewish culture, guilt serves as a dynamic binary: a source of self-examination and a prod to do better. This book points the reader towards that goal or basket.