R ecently, I was invited to a meeting at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, for a discussion with several of its directors, historians, and curators about their plans to develop an exhibition about the history and contributions of Jews in basketball. They had seen and appreciated the Black Fives museum exhibition at the New-York Historical Society and were interested in meeting up, at the kind suggestion of the Society, to see if there might be any mutual synergies or insights to share.
Before visiting their magnificent Lower Manhattan facility, with panoramic views that include all of New York Harbor, I wondered why no one has ever made a list of the Jewish pioneers of the Black Fives Era, those whose mutually beneficial collaborations with African Americans enhanced the sport prior to the racial integration of the National Basketball Association in 1950. There is certainly enough historical content to make a good list.
Beyond the enjoyment of uncovering and sharing this history, the other reason I wanted to explore further was to reinforce my conviction, which I believe is universally applicable, that basketball brings us together. This tenet was true over 100 years ago and, as lovers of the game know, it is still true today.
Though I like the idea of a list, I decided instead that any exploration of the historical interplay between Jewish and African American basketball first requires some background and context. We also first need the answer to this fundamental question: When exactly and how actually did Blacks and Jews first connect via basketball?
That means taking a long, fascinating, educational, and at times challenging historical journey. It begins on the Lower East Side of New York City, an amazing part of town that is well known as an early enclave for Jewish immigrants from Europe. Less well known but just as amazing is that this community was a tremendous basketball incubator, producing some of the game’s first stars, Jewish players, a few of whom made it all the way to the Basketball Hall of Fame.
The Lower East Side today is so ultra-cool, often without trying to be. This makes it a fun neighborhood in which to dig around for hidden gems of history. One of those gems is a place called Public School No. 188, which, when it opened in 1903 with a predominantly Jewish student body of over 5,000 pupils, was dubbed “the largest school in the world.” It also doubled as an equally prominent evening recreation center—E.R.C. 188. These institutions, which were profoundly significant in basketball history as well as social history, seem to have been overlooked by Jewish basketball historians and even Jewish cultural historians.
The school and the rec center yielded basketball teams—coached by a man named Augustus Edward “Jeff” Wetzler—that dominated New York City basketball for a decade, surpassing the best public school squads and even the highly-praised settlement house lineups. During his time, Wetzler became one of the game’s most important figures, though he is just as overlooked today as are P.S. 188 and E.R.C. 188.
Indeed, Wetzler was so successful that the Amateur Athletic Union effectively forced him to resign. This was a blessing for a Harlem-based African American basketball team—the St. Christopher Club—which hired the sought-after coach, implemented his well known “system,” and achieved its own tremendous success during the mid-1910s, winning four Colored Basketball World Championships with him on board.
Almost incredibly, Wetzler brought one of his Lower East Side protégés, a phenomenal Jewish player named Irving Rose, to join the erstwhile all-black St. Christopher Club team. This is the earliest known intersection between what at the time were the parallel burgeoning worlds of African American and Jewish American basketball.
Meanwhile, who was Augustus Edward “Jeff” Wetzler? What did he do? Was he Jewish?
Not Enough Schools
On the evening of December 30, 1901, the last Monday of the year, the Central Board of Education of the City of New York assembled a meeting in the new Hall of Education building on Park Avenue and 59th Street. It was two days before the official end of outgoing Mayor Robert Van Wyck’s four-year term in office, and they were rushing through one last order of business, not only to get it on the books for fiscal reporting reasons but also, more importantly, to get a jump on the education crisis now facing Mayor-elect Seth Low. The city’s educational infrastructure, neglected under Van Wyck’s administration, was simply unable to keep up with the massive, years-long, unyielding waves of immigration. Nowhere was this of more concern than on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
During Van Wyck’s four-year term, more than 20% of the total number of United States immigrants had settled in New York City, where the population was already exploding, having added nearly one million new residents—a staggering 40% increase—between 1890 and 1900. About 400,000 of those newcomers settled in Manhattan, with nearly 120,000 of their number moving into the Lower East Side, an acutely overcrowded neighborhood roughly 1.5 square miles in size that was already inhabited by some 500,000 people, the vast majority of whom were poor Jewish immigrants from Europe. By the late 1800s, that section was the most densely populated place in the world, more crowded even than the slums of Bombay, India.
Meanwhile, the number of school-aged children in New York City was enormous—about equal to the total population of Boston, Baltimore, or St. Louis. This figure increased by over 20,000 from 1902 to 1903 alone, adding to a shortage of classroom space so extreme that some 78,000 registered students were forced into part time schooling, the most in city history, while many would-be pupils whose parents showed up for school registration had to be turned away outright. This was anathema to most New Yorkers, especially on the Lower East Side, an area “often and sometimes contemptuously referred to as The Ghetto,” where hopeful Jewish parents who had fled Europe for better lives in America made education a priority, for their children’s sake, as the primary pathway toward better opportunities in life.
So, in that Board of Education meeting, no resistance was reported when the Finance Committee resolved to appropriate $383,000 from the city’s corporate stock holdings, subject to approval by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment, for a large new school to be built in the heart of the Lower East Side. Within a month, with newly inaugurated Mayor Low presiding at its meeting on Tuesday, January 21, 1902, the B.E.A. approved the apportionment, and with that the erection of Public School No. 188 was officially set in motion, scheduled to open by the fall term of 1903.
The courtyard gymnasiums and indoor playgrounds of P.S. 188 were splendid athletic facilities that were considered modern marvels. No one on the Lower East Side had ever seen—let alone dreamed of—gymnasium facilities quite like the ones now available to them. Their existence foretold the role that this historic new school soon would play in shaping the history of basketball.
 All the Nations Under Heaven: An Ethnic and Racial History ofNew York City, by Frederick M. Binder and David R. Reimers (New York: Columbia University Press, 1995)
 “New York’s Latest School,” The New York Times, 28 September 1902
 The New York Press, 17 September 1903
 “New York’s Latest School,” The New York Times, 28 September 1902
 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 31 December 1901
 New York Evening Post, 22 January 1902