The First Basket

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AFI Fest

Even die-hard sports fans shouldn't feel bad if the name Ossie Schectman is unfamilar. After all, with today's modern basketball dominated by African-Americans, it would take those with very long memories to recall that the first person to score a basket in what would eventually become the NBA was this Jewish player for the New York Knickerbockers.

David Vyorst's documentary "The First Basket" is an effective effort to rectify the widespread ignorance about the important role that Jewish players had in the history of the sport. Detailing its rise to popularity in such largely Jewish areas as NYC's Lower East Side, the film, narrated by actor Peter Riegert (himself associated with the neighborhood thanks to his role in "Crossing Delancy"), is an entertaining and informative sports doc that should find considerable exposure on cable channels after its theatrical run.

Basketball was a natural fit for urban areas which lacked large open spaces, with Jewish immigrants proving integral to its rise in popularity. The film includes entertaining interviews with many of these early players--including the aforementioned Schectman--who provide vivid accounts of the rough-and-tumble early days of the sport.

The darker elements of the story are not ignored, such as the City College point-shaving scandal and the pervasive anti-Semitism that led one journalist to theorize that Jews excelled at the sport because of their natural talents for "trickery and deceit."

While the rough-hewn film occasionally sacrifices deep analysis for easy nostalgia--one example being the too-long segment devoted to the glory days of the Catskills--its wonderful personal testimonies and wealth of archival footage provide a much needed sports history lesson. And, thanks to the huge popularity of basketball in modern-day Israel, there's even a happy ending.

Laemmle/Zeller Films

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