Sandy Koufax during his basketball days.

 

 

 

 

With all the Brooklyn Dodgers nostalgia, it’s tempting to think that basketball only recently became The Brooklyn Game.  I was struck then reading the wonderful Jane Leavy biography of Dodger icon/hero Sandy Koufax by this:

When he was growing up, baseball was neither Koufax’s dream nor his passion. His dream was to play for the New York Knicks…

Koufax didn’t play much basketball…until his family returned to Brooklyn, where every open space was a court, or a half court, and every fire escape ladder was a potential basket.  Others practiced shooting; Koufax practice the anonymous, contentious skill of rebounding….

He scoured the borough in search of The Big Game, which invariably took place at Brighton Beach, where playground legends, college stars, and pros gathered to hone their games, and the game basketball could become. Back then, no one knew from vertical leap.  Vertical was for skyscrapers.  But Koufax had wattage in his legs, hands large enough to palm the ball, and he didn’t shy away from contact. On the playground, players asked: You sure this boy is white? “He was just a skinny Jewish kid in a bandanna who challenged our small little prejudices,” [Jerry] Della Femina said.

Soon his name began to appear in the fine print of the Brooklyn Eagle sports pages, usually misspelled. Caufax. Kaufox. Kofax, Kauflex, Kouflex. “He was an incredibly smooth basketball player,” said Alan Dershowitz, another neighborhood kid who made good—as a legal authority and auth or I, Dershowitz Fame. “He would fake a jumper, drive the baseline, come under the boards and reverse the dunk. We weren’t used to that.”

His friends remember a dramatic moment in 1953, In an exhibition game with the Knicks, Koufax impressed the pros with his dunks and ended up playing basketball and baseball at the University of Cincinnati, where he was discovered by the Dodgers.

 

From all the hoopla surrounding the arrival of the Brooklyn Nets to the new Barclays Center, one would think that they are the first significant basketball team the borough has ever seen.

Not so. Brooklyn was home to a historic basketball first, way back in 1906, when the the Smart Set Athletic Club of Brooklyn, an African American social and sports organization, launched the first formally organized and independently run all-black basketball team.

The team, nicknamed the Grave Diggers because of their on-court dominance, played their first game in 1907 as part of a dynamic all-black Olympian Athletic League.

The Smart Set Brooklyn Basketball Team

The Smart Set Brooklyn Basketball Team


It was the beginning of the Black Fives Era, the period of prior to the racial integration of the National Basketball Association, during which dozens of all-black teams emerged and thrived in New York City, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

Smart Set basketball games included music and dancing until well past midnight. “Never in the history of Brooklyn, has such a galaxy of colored persons assembled under one roof,” exclaimed the New York Age, a leading African American newspaper, one such event.

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