Ossie Schectman wasn’t the leading scorer during the debut season of the Basketball Association of America, one of two leagues that would later merge to form the NBA. In fact he was only the third leading scorer on his team, the New York Knicks. He didn’t have a crossover dribble, but he did contribute an important building block for the NBA: he scored the first basket. Schectman died on Tuesday at the age of 94. Basketball author Charley Rosen joined Bill Littlefield to discuss Schectman’s legacy.
BL: Charley, the Basketball Association of America, as it was then known, was scheduled to begin play on Nov. 2, 1946, so how did Mr. Schectman find himself making history on Nov. 1, 1946?
CR: He was with the Knicks, and the game was played against the Toronto Huskies, and the arena was booked on the 2nd for the Toronto Maple Leafs, which was the NHL team, and of course, hockey was and still is the most important sport in Canada. So the game was pushed ahead one day and the basketball court was laid right on top of the ice, which created a problem when almost 7,100 fans showed up, and the temperature rose in the building, and there were puddles on the court, and guys were slipping and sliding all over the place. So it was an unusual game for a lot of reasons.
BL: Describe for us please the shot with which Mr. Schectman scored the NBA’s first two points.
CR: Schectman got the ball at the foul line, dribbled once, went up with a two-handed, underhand layup, which was the shot at the time. That’s the way you’re supposed to shoot layups. And there was always differences of opinion as to who made that pass. One of his teammates, Nat Militzok, said he made the pass, but he was on the bench, so he probably didn’t do it. It probably was a guy named Leo Gottlieb who made the pass.
BL: Ossie Schectman learned to play basketball on New York’s Lower East Side, where the hoop was likely to be approximated by the bottom spot on a fire escape ladder, as I understand it. How different was the game back then when they could play on a basketball court?
CR: Everybody kind of used the same offense, just kind of weaves. There was no 24-second [shot] clock. It was much more physical. Almost all of the owners of the charter NBA teams owned hockey teams either in the NHL or the American Hockey League, and they kind of wanted basketball to appeal to hockey fans, so the referees were instructed at the beginning of the first season to just let these guys go at each other. And their philosophy was the more blood the better in terms of interesting fans.
BL: Mr. Schectman made $9,000 for his first and only year in pro basketball. He left the league because he decided he could better support his family as a salesman in New York’s garment district. When you spoke with him decades later was he bitter about how much NBA players make today?
CR: No, not at all. In fact, he was an admirer of contemporary basketball. He really never missed a game. He thought that the modern-day players’ fundamental skills were much better, and he said, “Yeah, let them make money. Good for them. It’s terrific.” He didn’t begrudge them anything.
BL: Well, I’ve read your account of the phone interview that you did with Mr. Schectman, and he seemed like a thoroughly pleasant and interesting guy. Did you have a favorite moment from your interaction with him?
CR: I asked him if he had any regrets, and he said, yeah, he wish he had known how to do a crossover dribble – that looks like a lot of fun. He wanted to be able to dribble between his legs, he said, but that’s something that happened on its own about five years ago.