‘A Prince Of The Game’

‘A Prince Of The Game’

Most young boys learning to play basketball at the Jewish Community House in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, in the early 1970s were trying to shoot jump shots like former New York Knick superstar Willis Reed. Or “shake and bake” like Earl (The Pearl) Monroe. Or play defense like Walt “Clyde” Frazier.

“Bradley from the corner. Yes!” That was the oft-heard exclamation from a happy 12-year-old who just launched a successful shot from the corner of the gym like his hero, “Dollar” Bill Bradley.

Rarely, if ever thought of, was the fact that the mastermind behind those legendary Knick teams — the only ones to win National Basketball Association Championships in the 50-year history of the franchise — was also a Jewish kid from Brooklyn.

The coach and strategist was William “Red” Holzman, a second-generation American-born Jew who learned the urban — and at the time, very Jewish — game of basketball during the 1930s in the Jewish community centers of Brooklyn and the Lower East Side.

Elected to the NBA Hall of Fame after retiring from coaching16 years ago, Holzman died last Friday at Long Island Jewish Hospital at the age of 78 after battling leukemia.

Holzman brought class and a strong work ethic to those Knick teams by stressing teamwork and the basics of the American-invented sport: aggressive defense, unselfishness, and moving without the ball.

As a result, Holzman became the winningest coach in Knick history and has been credited by his players as being a fair and honest maestro who brought together diverse personalities into a finely tuned five-part harmony (with a sixth voice like Cazzie Russell blending in off the bench.) The symphony Holzman orchestrated had its high points in 1970 and again in ’73 when the Knicks captured the NBA title.

Much has been written this week about Holzman, a beloved athlete, teacher and husband, who died while mourning the death of his wife of 55 years, Selma, who passed away four months ago.

Holzman, a graduate of Brooklyn’s Franklin K. Lane High School and City College of New York, where he was named an all-American basketball player, symbolizes the entry of Jews into America’s sports culture, says Jeffrey Gurock, a history professor at Yeshiva University and chairman of the academic council of the American Jewish Historical Society.

“One of the ways for Jews acculturating into America was by discovering sports,” Gurock explains. “Basketball was a second-generation Jewish game. They learned in the settlement houses, the downtown education alliances and Brooklyn community centers. That’s when basketball was a Jewish sport, and Holzman was one of the princes of the game.”

Holzman’s parents were Jewish immigrants, his father Abraham, a tailor, emigrating from Russia, and his mother Sophie from Romania.

Holzman was called “Roita” or “Red” in Yiddish as a child, wrote New York Times sports columnist Ira Berkow in a moving obituary. “Yiddish was the language Holzman grew up with,” Berkow stated, adding that Abe Holzman didn’t want his son to go into sports.

Gurock said it was significant that Holzman learned his formula for hoop success at the feet of two other Jewish basketball legends: City College coach Nat Holman and longtime Yeshiva University coach Red Sarachik.

“Holzman played for him [Sarachik] in the late ’30s at the Grand Street Boys Association,” a social and athletic club for second-generation Jews restricted from playing for other New York clubs, Gurock explained.

Gurock asserted that Holzman absorbed the important concept of trapping defenses and “seeing the ball,” or anticipating where the ball is going, both from Holman and Sarachik.

“This style, this Jewish cerebral type of game, was common in this time period,” he said.

David Kufeld, a former YU player and founder of the Jewish Sports Congress, said about four years ago he asked Holzman to serve as honorary commissioner for a new Jewish intramural basketball league on Long Island.

Holzman, a longtime Cedarhurst resident and always a private man, was cautious, trying to determine if Kufeld was for real.

When told that peers like legendary Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach were on the group’s advisory board, Holzman “willingly and graciously lent his name.”

“He wasn’t after the glory,” said Kufeld.

Dr. Ike Herschkopf, a Manhattan psychiatrist, got to see the personal side of Holzman, spending time with him at sports banquets.

“He was a very proud Jew. He spoke about his Judaism,” Herschkopf told The Jewish Week.

Unlike other Jewish sports figures who don’t talk about their Judaism, Herschkopf said Holzman was proud of his heritage. “They might not deny it, but they don’t advertise it; Red advertised it,” he said. While not particularly religiously observant, “he was very comfortable among the rabbis and kosher meals.”

In 1990, the Knicks honored Holzman by hanging a jersey on the rafters in Madison Square Garden. Inscribed on the shirt were the numbers of victories the coach won with the Knicks — 613.

“I remember Red was joking that everyone would look up and see the famous numbers 19 [Willis Reed] and 24 [Bradley] and they’ll wonder who that guy was with the big number. The waterboy?” Herschkopf recalled.

Soon thereafter the psychiatrist wrote the coach explaining the significance of the number 613 in Jewish tradition.

“I wrote a letter telling him that 613 is the single most special number in the Jewish religion, signifying the number of commandments that an observant Jew observes,” Herschkopf said. “I told him the highest praise that one could give to a Jew is to say he is a 613 man.”

Holzman was moved.

“Subsequently he told me that he was so taken with this that he not only framed the letter but sent out copies to his friends.

“Red Holzman was really a kiddush hashem [sanctification of God],” Herschkopf said. “He was really a credit to our religion.”

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