On November 1, 1946, the NBA’s first basket was scored when Ossie Schectman of the New York Knickerbockers sank a layup, in a game against the Toronto Huskies. The Knicks went on to win the game, by a score of 68-66.
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At the time, the two teams were playing in a league called the Basketball Association of America, which after its expansion three years later would change its name to the National Basketball Association. By then, the Huskies had gone out of business and Schectman had moved to the Paterson Crescents, in what was called the American Basketball League.
It would be more than four decades before Schechtman’s “first basket,” worth two points, became recognized as such. The occasion was the scoring of the league’s 5 millionth point in January 1988, when a researcher for the league made the effort to identify who had been responsible for the first.
Apparently, the achievement was not something the retired player had focused on later in life. As his son Peter told the Associated Press, at the time of Schectman’s death, in 2013, "Growing up with him, I never heard him mention it."
Why Jews play basketball
Oscar Benjamin Schectman was born in Kew Gardens, in Queens, New York, on March 30, 1919, and was the son of Jewish immigrant parents from Odessa, Ukraine. He played basketball at Samuel J. Tilden High School, in Brooklyn, from which he graduated in 1937, and then at Long Island University, whose team won the National Invitation Tournament – at the time, more important than the NCAA championship – twice during the years Schectman was on the squad, in 1939 and in 1941.
Before coming to the Knicks, Schectman played five seasons with the Philadelphia Sphas, in the ABL. The team’s peculiar name was an acronym for “South Philadelphia Hebrew Association.” Indeed, this was an era when many pro players were Jews, leading the sports editor of the New York Daily News, Paul Gallico, to suggest a decade earlier that basketball "appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background [because] the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smartalecness."
The coming of the BAA, later NBA, spelled the end for the Sphas, as the team’s owner and coach, Eddie Gottlieb, was named head coach and general manager of the BAA’s Philadelphia Warriors, later the Golden State Warriors. Gottlieb was also one of the founders of the new league.
And then a garment salesman
On that November evening in Toronto, a parquet floor was rolled out to cover the ice at the Maple Leaf Garden. In an attempt to draw fans to watch basketball in an ice-hockey town, the owners of the Huskies promised a free ticket to anyone who height exceeded that of their tallest player, George Nostrand, who was 6 feet, 8 inches (2.03 meters) tall.
Schectman, who played guard, was accompanied on the court by teammates Sonny Hertzberg, Stan Stutz, Hank Rosenstein, Ralph Kaplowitz, Jake Weber, and Leo "Ace" Gottlieb. After defeating the Huskies that night, they went on to have a season record of 33-27. Schectman played in 54 of those 60 contests, and he averaged 8.1 points per game, which was high at the time, but that was his only season playing for the Knicks. His total salary was $9,000.
After a single season with the Paterson Crescents, Schectman retired from professional basketball, and went to work as a salesman in New York’s garment industry. He died on July 30, 2013, at the age of 94.
Once the NBA turned Schectman’s “first basket” into a basketball landmark, he began to receive much belated recognition. He and his teammates, for example, were the subject of David Vyort’s 2008 documentary film, “The First Basket,” about the Jewish players who were so prominent in the early years of professional basketball in the United States. Journalist Charley Rosen also spoke with Schectman for his 2008 book “The First Tip Off,” about the NBA’s premier season.
Shectman’s son Peter, in describing how his father had never mentioned his achievement, explained how, from Ossie’s point of view, “He was the captain of the team and the idea was to win ballgames.”