By: Dr. Rafael Medoff
At the height of the campaign to free Soviet Jewry in the 1970s, Yossi Klein Halevi –today a contributing editor of The New Republic, in those days a young Jewish activist– wrote an article criticizing those American Jewish leaders who were wavering in their support for the Jackson Amendment, legislation linking U.S. trade benefits to Soviet Jewish emigration. He characterized Sen. Henry Jackson, the sponsor of that bill, as “the only Jewish leader left in America.”
Halevi’s column came to mind recently, when I heard the news that eight Long Island University basketball players, at least three of them Christians, were inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame. Like Senator Jackson, they remind us that sometimes, even a non-Jew can be a kind of Jewish leader–and a good one, at that.
The year was 1936, and basketball was about to become an official Olympic sport. The nation’s leading college teams –pro basketball was still in its infancy– prepared to vie for the honor of representing the United States at the inaugural competition that summer. But when the opening round of tryouts got underway at Madison Square Garden, the team that many considered the most likely to win was not even on the court.
In a move that stunned the sports world, the Long Island University Blackbirds decided, as a team, to boycott the 1936 Berlin Olympics, to protest the Nazis’ persecution of German Jews.
In view of Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies, the LIU players believed “that the United States should not participate in Olympic Games since they are being held in Germany,” university president Tristram Metcalfe announced. Therefore, he explained, the Blackbirds “decided not to compete [in the tryouts] because the university would not under any circumstances by represented in the Olympic Games held in Germany.”
Several other teams stayed away from the tryouts, but for different reasons. Notre Dame did not want its players to miss so many classes. New York University explained that its players could not afford to be absent from their part-time jobs. The LIU Blackbirds were the only ones to stand on principle.
The Blackbirds’ decision was especially impressive when one considers the likelihood that they would have won the tryouts and qualified for the Olympics. At the time of the tryouts, they had won thirty-three straight games, including every game of the 1935-1936 season. And they won by an average margin of twenty-three points. Four of their starters went on to play professionally for the American Basketball League (as=2 0it was called in those days), and LIU coach Clair Bee later coached the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets.
For top-caliber athletes who had a serious chance of qualifying for the Olympics and competing in the most prestigious athletic event in the world, boycotting the Berlin games was an enormous personal and professional sacrifice–one that very few were prepared to make. Aside from the LIU Blackbirds, the athletes who announced they would not go to Berlin because of its oppression of the Jews could be counted on one’s hands: speedskater Jack Shea, sprinter Herman Neugass, swimming coach Charlotte Epstein, and track and field stars Norman Cahners, Milton Green, Lillian Copeland, and Syd Koff.
The boycotters were not exactly showered with accolades. Sports columnist Frank H. Eck, for example, chastised LIU for causing “ill feelings” by bringing the German Jewish issue into the discussion. LIU’s declared reason for boycotting the games was, he wrote, “the wrong answer from a sports angle.” Maybe. But it was the right answer from a human angle.
The LIU Blackbirds were cut from a different cloth. Some of the LIU players were Jewish. Some were not. The team’s manager was Jewish. The coach was not. They came from different religious and ethnic backgrounds, but Ben Kramer, Marius Russo, Jules Bender, Ken Norton, Leo Merson, Arthur Hillhouse, Bill Schwarz and Harry Grant shared a clear-eyed view of what wa s happening in Germany.
Contrast that with the muddled view of President Franklin Roosevelt. He justified American participation in the Berlin games on the grounds that two tourists who attended the Olympics told him “that the synagogues are crowded and apparently there is nothing very wrong in the situation [of Germany’s Jews] at present.”
Today, even among sports fans, the names of the LIU Blackbirds are almost completely forgotten. Coach Bee is remembered by some enthusiasts for inventing the 1-3-1 zone defense and the 24-second shot clock, or for the “Chip Hilton” series of sports books for teens that he later authored. And a few New York Yankees old-timers may recall that Marius Russo switched sports and, as “Lefty” Russo, became the star pitcher in the Yankees’ 1941 season and World Series victory.
But what they and their teammates really deserve to be remembered for is their willingness to put the cause of the oppressed above their own self interest. That is a quality far more precious than the ability to excel on a track, field, skating rink, or basketball court. And, one might add, it is a quality that should define a real Jewish leader.