The Chosen Game

A Jewish Basketball History

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Charley Rosen
  • Chapel Hill, NC: 
    University of Nebraska Press
    , November
     2017.
     224 pages.
     $24.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780803255432.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Charley Rosen, writer and former NBA analyst for FoxSports.com, engages his readers in a hybrid genre text of athletics and history—an analytical intersection of religion, basketball, and Jewish-American culture. Rosen’s text spans from the late 19thcentury, the foundation and formation of basketball, to the early 21st-century—the NBA as we now know it. Rosen’s hybridized historical text can serve as an opening avenue for heightened interest from scholars of religion seeking varied accounts of Jewish-American culture. The Chosen Game follows “the continuing tradition existing for well over a hundred years of pioneering Jewish players, coaches, and administrators who… had a significant impact on the evolution of basketball as we know it.” The Chosen Game is thus the story of “the chosen people and their chosen game” (x). 

The book opens with a chapter titled with a biblical reference: “In the Beginning.” This chapter introduces Dr. James Naismith, a YMCA physical education teacher credited with pioneering the earliest form of basketball. From the outset, Rosen has intuitively positioned himself to talk not only about the Judaic history of basketball players, coaches, and influencers, but the role of basketball in the all-encompassing tradition, religion, culture, and way of life that Judaism embodies and represents in the United States. 

Rosen’s relatively short text for a long historical trajectory works in conjunction with his shorter, higher volume chapter divisions. The book contains twenty-six formal chapters, as well as a preface and an appendix. The chapters cover short periods of history involving certain players and formative changes in the sport. However, the chapter organization tended to be chaotic with little structure set across the book. For example, in chapter 2, “Busy Izzies Take Over,” Rosen uses the chapter to give brief biographical summaries of the younger players under Harry Braun during his stint at the University Settlement House (5). The chapter describes four of the formative players who, according to Rosen, “became the best professional players in the early days of the game” (6). Following the bio-basketball journey of these four players (Louis Sugarman, Ira Streusand, Max Friedman, and Barney Sedran), he directly leads into the testimony section of the chapter. The testimony includes three short paragraphs on Princeton basketball player and 2012 Russian bronze medalist David Blatt, and his encounters with anti-Semitism both in the United States and during his Olympic journey. The “busyness” of this chapter distracts from the historical aim and Judaic lens from which Rosen writes. The chapter as distinctive parts— biographical entries, person by person accounts, and testimonial— hold weight, but as a composite, these working parts create disorder and confusion. 

This chapter is an exception to the overall format of the book. Rosen spends time integrating historical fact with the basketball past, making for a well-rounded text. The book covers different periods including the draft of World War II and its effects on league formation and stability, the college scandals of 1951 and the Jewish players affected during this period, and the early formations and mergings of the BAA with the NBL to create the NBA (118). Each momentous historical occasion that Rosen details includes new developments in basketball (college and professional), as well as the involved and/or included Jewish players, coaches, and administrators. 

As a scholar of religion, reading an interdisciplinary text on history, religion, and basketball culture, this book left me with three main critiques. First, the testimonies, commented on briefly above, felt forced and rushed. Each chapter concluded with a “testimony” by a coach, player, or involved party (even Rosen himself) that ranged from two to three paragraphs, to one to two pages. While some were significantly longer than others, many of the testimonies offered little to no addition to the conversation at large. Long-term NBA player Amare Stoudemire’s testimony was another odd inclusion given the book’s subtitle, “A Jewish Basketball History,” since Stoudemire is an “African-American born in Lake Wales, Florida” (32). Rosen notes that Stoudemire was raised by “spiritual people” brought up to believe the “entire bible” (32). However, Stoudemire’s pseudo-conversion narrative as well as his overt involvement with the Hapoel Jerusalem, an Israeli basketball team, raises questions about the Jewish-ness of the book. Stoudemire’s personal Jewish journey aside, this testimony left me with more questions than it did with answers.  

Second, this text requires a working knowledge of basketball rules, players, and politics. To feel acquainted and acclimated with the material the reader should understand the history and jargon of American basketball culture past and present. Many of the names of players, presumably well known, were not well introduced. This book hybridizes sports and religion, creating a lag in the transmission of knowledge that simply highlights the trouble with interdisciplinary work. The sport specific scholar working with this text would be able to navigate the religious writing. However, the religion scholar receives less formal introduction to sports.

My last point of contention is the narrow lens through which Rosen writes. The premise of the book hinges on the participation and credited popularizing of the sport by involved Jewish players and coaches. However, this book includes little mention of Jewish women who participate(d) in American basketball besides Nancy Lieberman. Perhaps this is due to a lack of influential Jewish women in the sport, or an authorial decision, but nonetheless, a helpful disclaimer outlining this absence would have been helpful. Additionally, the text credits Jews with “trying to make a place for black players in the pro game” and succeeding in doing so (64). But the whiteness and androcentricism of the text limits the engagement with people of color and women. 

Overall, Rosen’s text works hard to do interdisciplinary writing and research—a hard task for any scholar. His dedication to the book and to the histories of the people he included doesnot go unnoticed. The complicated and often sorrowful past of Jewish men (and women) is, for a moment, forgotten through Rosen’s writing about Jewish participation in their “chosen game.”

About the Reviewer(s): 

Madison Tarleton is a doctoral candidate in the Study of Religion at the University of Denver/Iliff School of Theology Joint Doctoral Program.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Charley Rosen is a writer whose work appears regularly on Fanragsports.com. He previously worked as an NBA analyst for FOXSports.com and is the author of twenty-one sports books, including Perfectly Awful: The Philadelphia 76ers’ Horrendous and Hilarious 1972–1973 Season (Nebraska, 2014) and Crazy Basketball: A Life In and Out of Bounds (Nebraska, 2011). He has coauthored two books with NBA coach Phil Jackson.

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