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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 ...

Ossie
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."

    Ossie
    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 to improvise."

    Ossie
    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 we played."

    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."