Tuesday, April 8, 2003 Updated: April 9, 12:22 PM ET
NBA pioneer is no old fogey
By Charley Rosen Page 2 columnist
Here we are, living game by game amid the delightful turmoil of still another
NBA season rushing headlong to judgment. Even here in Sports America, where
fuel prices are rocketing out of sight ... where the dogs of war have been set loose ... where disappointed idealists (like me) try with all their
might to be hopeful in the face of a game (and a culture) increasingly
distorted by money, power, the media, and rampant egomania.
There is an understandable danger that every one of us may become terminally
cynical. So now, before it's too late, we need a brief pause to revive our
mind and spirit. More than ever, we need a timeout.
In other words, we need a return to the very beginning, when things were pure
and simple and innocent ...
Don't call him Oscar: Ossie Schectman back in his NBA prime.
On November 1, 1946, for the first game in NBA history, the
home-standing Toronto Huskies had an unusual promotion: Free admission was
promised to any fan who was taller than Toronto's tallest player, 6-8 George
Nostrand. No one seems to recollect if anybody took advantage of the offer,
and indeed many aspects of that historic game remain shrouded in mystery.
But several facts have survived:
The visiting New York Knickerbockers won, 68-66.
Toronto's player-coach, Ed Sadowski, was the high-scorer, with 18 points.
And the first points in the history of the NBA were scored by the Knicks'
sturdy point guard, Oscar "Ossie" Schectman.
These days, the 86-year-old Schectman must turn up his hearing aid to
participate in a telephone conversation -- and many of his recollections of
that historic ballgame have likewise dimmed.
"I scored on a two-handed underhand layup," he says, "which was the standard
chippy shot back then. I also remember being on the receiving end of a
give-and-go, but I can't remember who I received the pass from."
Nobody paid much attention to Schectman's milestone until 1982, when Ricky
Green of the Utah Jazz was officially credited with scoring the NBA's 5-millionth point.
In 1996, the surviving Huskies had a reunion as part of the NBA's 50th
anniversary celebration. "That's when a teammate of mine," says Schectman, "a
guy named Nat Militzok, told me that he had made the pass, but I'm positive
that Nat wasn't one of the starters."
Yet Schectman does recall other salient information: "I was the Knicks'
third-leading scorer [8.1 ppg], I also finished third in the league in assist
average [2.0], and my salary was 60 dollars per game. Ha! These days, the
players make about sixty dollars a minute. Don't get me wrong, though. I
have no jealousy or resentment over how much money these guys make today. I
think they're the best athletes in the world, and they're worth every red
cent. I'm just proud to have been one of the NBA's pioneers."
He's no old fogey: Schectman admits today's NBA players are more talented.
What a nice man Ossie Schectman is: a joyful survivor from another
generation. A creature from a world where the Almighty Dollar was not
worshipped so devoutly and by so many; where athletes played basketball at
the highest possible level, unconcerned about vying with one another for the
biggest contract, or the costliest neck ice, or the biggest posse; where $60
a game was just fine; where somebody could do something (anything) just for
the intrinsic joy of doing it.
How refreshing to listen to Schectman talk about the differences between then
and now in both the players and the game:
"The ball was made of leather, and it was darker-colored and much heavier.
There was a rubber bladder inside that would have to be pumped full of air,
usually at a gas station. And the outside of the ball was sealed tight with
leather laces. The laces were slightly raised from the rest of the surface,
so if you were dribbling and the ball landed on the laces, it wouldn't bounce
up straight and you could easily lose control."
Schectman and his boyhood chums all grew up in poverty on New York's
Lower East Side, where the cost of a legitimate basketball was far beyond
their means. "Sometimes somebody gave us an old worn-out ball," he says,
"all thin-skinned and shiny. We just taped up all the holes and used it as
long as we could. When we didn't have a ball, we used to tape some rags
together in the shape of a ball. The gyms in the settlement houses were the
only places that had baskets, and when we wanted to play on our own, we had
Schectman's one wish: that he had mastered the crossover dribble.
The hoop might be an old laundry basket, or a bent-wire clothes hanger
nailed to a lamppost. Or most often, the bottom slot of a fire escape
ladder. "We didn't mind that this goal was square-shaped, horizontal and
perpendicular to the brick wall that served as a backboard," says Schectman.
"We were just happy to have someplace to play."
Schectman's peers were the best hoopers of their generation, yet he can cite
only a handful who would conceivably be able to compete with today's best:
"Joe Fulks, for sure. Maybe Connie Simmons and Bud Palmer. We didn't have the
size, the agility, or the physicality. Players today also have to be
ambidextrous, and we never were. I was a point guard, one of the best
ball-handlers in the league, and I went left maybe once every game."
Dunking was out of the question. "Who could do such a thing?" Schectman says
with wonder in his voice. "Maybe Fulks? Mikan didn't come into the league
until after I was through, but I doubt if he could ever dunk. Besides, if you
did dunk the ball, the refs would call you for basket interference."
Schectman notes other vast differences between the early days and now: "We
all ran some form of a figure-eight offense that was predicated on movement,
picks and changes of direction. Before Mikan, most of the centers played the
high post and were good shooters and passers. The best pivotman I ever played
with was Dolly King, but back then no blacks were allowed in the NBA."
Although he doesn't categorically criticize young whippersnappers, Schectman
does reflect on some basic aspects of the game that the old-time players
performed on a higher level than the modern NBAers. "We moved better without
the ball," says Schectman, "and we played much smarter. Back then, a good
defender could stop a good scorer one-on-one, but that's not possible
anymore. I think the way the women play in the WNBA is comparable to the way
Even so, Schectman is a big fan of NBA action and watches the march of the
seasons with a joyful heart. "We had 30-foot range with our set shots," he
says, "so I love the three-point line. I also like the new zone defenses,
because it forces quick ball movement. And I think that the NBA offenses are
just terrific. Why go through all the motions, when they can get right to the
shooting and the one-on-one situations? We needed all the cutting and running
around to get open shots, but these guys don't. That's why the modern game
is so much more exciting."
His hearing may be diminished, but the years have not darkened his luminous
sense of wonder. "When I watch the games on the TV," he says, "I can't help
projecting myself into the action. Naturally, I concentrate on the point
guards since that was my position. And it's a thrill to see guys like Mike
Bibby, Steve Nash and John Stockton. Their fundamentals are outstanding --
footwork, balance, shooting techniques, ballhandling skills. Contrary to
what some old fogeys might say, I think their fundamental skills are much
better than ours ever were."
Schectman apologizes for cutting short the conversation. "There's a game on the TV
that I don't want to miss," he says. "Sacramento versus Dallas,
my two favorite teams. Believe me, the golden years are terrific as long as
it's game time."
Before he can hang up, I sneak in one last question: Any regrets? "Sure," he
says. "I wish I would have known how to do a crossover dribble. That really
looks like a lot of fun."
Anything else? "Not really. I always thought I wanted to be able to dribble
between my legs, but that's something that started happening on its own about
five years ago."
Charley Rosen, a former coach in the Continental Basketball Association, has been intimately involved with basketball for the better part of five decades -- as a writer, a player, a coach and a passionate fan. Rosen's books include "More Than a Game,""The Cockroach Basketball League,""The Wizard of Odds: How Jack Molinas Almost Destroyed the Game of Basketball,""Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball" and "The House of Moses All-Stars: A Novel."