In the spring of 1950, the City College of New York (CCNY) basketball team won an upset victory over the University of Kentucky’s top-ranked team. The CCNY team, composed entirely of blacks and Jews, beat its all-white, all-Gentile rivals—some of whom refused to shake hands with their opponents before the game began—with a final score of 89 to 50. Reviewing Matthew Goodman’s The City Game, about this particular City College team, Rich Cohen writes:
It was not just the manner of victory, the fact that CCNY was a team with a revolutionary style characterized by the fast break, [a rapid switch from defense to offense] that reflected the speed and panache of the city playgrounds. Nor was it the David-versus-Goliath nature of the triumph, the fact that CCNY, a tuition-free refuge for ethnic overachievers who’d been quota-ed out of the Ivy League, had taken down the basketball elite. It was that this game, coming at a time when being black or Jewish was exactly the wrong thing to be, seemed less a meeting of schools than a clash of civilizations: old versus new, South versus North, prejudice versus tolerance.
In the summer, many top college players worked as waiters in the Catskills—the Hotel Brickman, Young’s Gap Hotel, Klein’s Hillside Hotel, Kutsher’s Hotel and Country Club, the Ambassador Hotel, which “dispensed with individual recruiting and just imported the entire Bradley starting five from Peoria.” Of course, their real job was basketball. They were ringers, brought in to play in the local league and entertain the guests (Wilt Chamberlain had a gig like this at Kutsher’s a few years later).
A strength of Goodman’s book is the way it conjures up the lost worlds of New York. The Catskills, a/k/a the Jewish Alps; the tenements, with their Yiddish-filled hallways and starch-heavy meals, “brisket and roast chicken, and potato latkes, and stuffed cabbage and kugel, washed down with glasses of seltzer and cherry soda”; the Harlem streets, where the numbers game was a neighborhood obsession; the playgrounds, where everyone played basketball because basketball required little space and just one ball, making it the most democratic game.
Those hotels were also where the players—themselves eager to make some money off the sport—met the bookies and gamblers who would eventually bring them into a point-shaving scandal that left them in disgrace.