One of the greatest Jewish basketball players in the history of the game, Fliegel is a member of the CCNY (City College of New York) Athletic Hall of Fame (the first basketball player so honored by the school) and the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame. As a senior at City College in 1938, Bernie was a first team All-America selection, was named the second best player in the country by the National Press Writers Association (behind the great Hank Luisetti of Stanford) and won the Haggerty Award, given annually to the best player in New York City.
A good player in high school (he led DeWitt Clinton to the 1934 PSAL title), Fliegel flourished under City’s Hall of Fame coach, Nat Holman. During the 1938 season, the New York Evening Post praised Fleigel's improvement, and stated that under Holman, "Bernie has developed into one of the smoothest 'courtiers' in the city. Few centers at the [City] college…ever were more accomplished."
Following his collegiate career, Fliegel became one of the top professional centers in the late 1930s and 1940s in the ABL (American Basketball League). A lawyer (he received his law degree in 1941), Bernie led the Wilmington Bombers to the league title in 1942 and turned down an opportunity to play with the New York Knicks in the inaugural season of the BAA (the Basketball Association of America became the NBA in 1949-50). After retiring from professional basketball after World War II (he served in the Air Force), Fliegel concentrated on his law practice in New York City. He became semi-retired in 1972 and moved to Florida, where he fully retired in 1976. Fliegel currently lives in Naples, Florida.
During his professional career, Fliegel was involved in a series of games against the Harlem Globetrotters at a time when the 'Trotters played serious basketball and were considered one of the top pro teams in the country. In March 1942, Fliegel played on three different teams that defeated the Globetrotters in three consecutive games, a feat not achieved before then, or since. On March 22 in the afternoon, Fliegel and the Wilmington Blue Bombers of the ABL defeated Harlem, 55-46 (Bernie scored 7 points). That evening, Bernie played with the Newark Hebrew Club as they beat the Globetrotters, 41-29 (he scored 6 points). Two nights later, Bernie was on the floor for the Glens Fall Lions, a local basketball squad, as they beat the Globetrotters, 46-44 (he was the high scorer with 17 points). According to the Globetrotters, no player has ever defeated them in three consecutive games – Fliegel has contacted the team with the box scores, but has yet to hear of their acceptance. Nevertheless, Bernie was named to the Globetrotters all-opponents team from 1941-48.
Like many other Jewish players of the era, Fliegel experienced anti-Semitism from opponents, fans, and coaches. He explained that while growing up in Manhattan and the Bronx, he lived in 'ethnically mixed' neighborhoods where sports and athletic ability were important factors in determining social status. Whereas many other Jewish kids were picked on because of stereotypes that stigmatized Jews as un-athletic, Fliegel's height, size (approximately 6'3", 200 pounds), talent, and toughness earned respect from non-Jews. This was the case throughout his career and Fliegel prided himself on the fact that he was able to protect other Jewish players on the court, whether playing at DeWitt Clinton High School, City College of New York, or in the American Basketball League.
Birth and Death Dates:
b. May 13, 1918
Born in New York City in 1918 to Eastern European immigrant parents (his father was from Lithuania and his mother from Odessa, Russia), Fliegel grew up on the East Side of Manhattan in the 1920s. His father, a kosher butcher, had a shop on 28th Street. At the age of 12, the family moved to the Bronx because his father became ill and retired. Fliegel explained that the move was seen as a 'step up,' because the family was able to escape the crowded neighborhoods of Manhattan to the relative space of the Bronx.
While in the Bronx, Fliegel attended DeWitt Clinton High School and for the first time, began playing basketball on a regular basis. Because of his height (he eventually reached 6'3"), he enjoyed the game and became successful on the playgrounds of his neighborhood. His parents did not understand the game, nor his passion for it, but they did not attempt to dissuade him from playing as long as he maintained his grades in school. This he did, and after playing on the junior varsity as a sophomore and junior, Bernie played on the varsity squad as a senior in 1934.
An outstanding rebounder and defender, Fliegel rarely crossed the midway line for Clinton and was known for his selfless play and all-around leadership. Despite rarely taking a shot, Bernie was named third team All-City and led Clinton to the New York City PSAL (Public School Athletic League) championship by defeating powerhouse Thomas Jefferson High School of Brooklyn. This was quite an accomplishment because experts considered Brooklyn the basketball hotbed of New York City at the time.
After he graduated from Clinton at the age of 16, Fliegel attended City College of New York. He had originally wanted to attend Cornell University, an Ivy League school located in Ithaca, New York, but his parents would not allow him to go without having a friend attend the school as well. When his friend failed to gain admittance, Fliegel decided to stay at home and attend City College. After spending his freshman season on the junior varsity, he joined the varsity as a sophomore in 1935-36.
A center in high school, Fliegel played the same position for the Beavers, although he was also used at guard and forward by head coach Nat Holman. During his first varsity season, Bernie stepped into the starting line-up in the middle of the year and by the end of the season, was a regular starter. In the season finale against rival NYU (the defending national champions), Fliegel led the Beavers in scoring with 8 points but City lost the game, 35-32. They finished the season with a record of 10-4 as Bernie scored 78 points on the season.
As a junior the following season (1937), Fliegel began to show the flashes of brilliant play that would make him a top professional in the 1940s. Although the team struggled a bit, finishing with a record of 10-6, Fliegel accounted for one-fifth of City’s points that year (119 out of 596). In the Beavers' season finale, he was held to only 4 points in City's 38-32 loss to archrival NYU, but still came in second in the voting for the Leeds Trophy, given to the game's outstanding player (NYU captain Milt Schulman won the award).
That season, LIU’s Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee said that Bernie was, "the best player in the city. He can do it all."
In 1938, Fliegel’s was City's captain and advanced from star player for CCNY to top player in the East. The only player on the Beavers' squad over 6' tall, the 6'3" Fliegel routinely had to play against taller players, but was considered one of the top defenders and rebounders in the nation. As a senior, he also added scoring to his resume as he led City College to a 13-3 record with a school-record 205 points in 16 games (the record stood for 12 years). Fourth in the Metropolitan area in total points, Bernie led all New York players in scoring average with 12.8 points per game.
That season, Bernie was named first team All-Metropolitan by both the coaches and writers (the only unanimous choice) and won the Haggery Award as the best player in the New York Metropolitan area (the only CCNY player in history to win the award). Fliegel was also named NEA first team All-America (as a guard) and the second best player in the nation (and best in the East) by the National Press Writers Association. His coach Nat Holman said that, "Fliegel had no peer in all-around play in any game this season." He was also praised for, "…[his] ability to be the spearhead of City’s attack and yet a bulwark on defense…made him the most important cog in the Beaver machine." Newspapers described Bernie as, "…easily the best center in New York this season. The big Beaver possessed…shooting qualities and under the basket skill…plus stamina, which made him available for full-time duty in every game."
During the 1937-38 season, Fliegel and City played Stanford with their All-American, Hank Luisetti, at Madison Square Garden. Stanford had already defeated Eastern powerhouse LIU (snapping LIU's 43 game winning streak) and few experts gave the Beavers much of a chance against the taller Cardinal squad. Fliegel found himself at a height disadvantage as Stanford had three players taller than him, not to mention the great Luisetti, who revolutionized the game with his successful one-handed shot. City fell behind in the second half 42-26 with only eight minutes remaining, but made a stunning comeback and only lost by a score of 45-42 after missing two lay-ups in the final minutes. Jimmy Powers, Sports Editor of the iNew York Daily News called the CCNY-Stanford contest the most exciting basketball game he ever saw.
Fliegel graduated from City College in 1938 at the age of 19 and entered Fordham Law School. He also began playing professional basketball and joined Kate Smith’s Celtics of the ABL (Kate Smith was a famous popular singer of the era). The Celtics played at the Hippodrome, but during the 1938-39 season, the team moved to Kingston and was renamed the Colonials. That season, Bernie played in 34 games and scored 169 points for the first place Colonials (28-7). They were upset in the by the Jersey Reds in the playoffs.
The following year, he returned to Kingston as the team finished 19-15 and were eliminated in a round-robin playoff system (they moved to Troy in the middle of the season). Among his teammates that season were Jewish stars Nat Frankel (described in a program as the high scorer), Pete Berenson (key man and dribbler), and Ben Kramer (powerhouse).
In 1940-41, Fliegel played for the same franchise, which relocated to Brooklyn, and was the third leading scorer on the team with 130 points. The team won the league in the second half of the season with a record of 11-4, but lost in the championship series to the first-half champions, Philadelphia Sphas (the nickname stood for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association). In 1941, Fliegel also graduated from Fordham Law School and passed the New York State bar exam.
In 1941-42, Fliegel left the Celtics and joined the Wilmington Blue Bombers, coached by the legendary Barney Sedran. That season, with Bernie as team captain and fellow CCNY alum Moe Spahn on the squad, the Bombers won both halves of the season to capture the ABL championship. Considered one of the greatest teams of the era, Wilmington led the league in scoring with 38.5 points per game while allowing a league-low 33.2 points per game. Bernie was named second team All-Pro and finished seventh in the league in scoring with 150 points (6.0 average) as he was allowed to move to a forward/guard position because other players could take care of the center duties.
Fliegel enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War II, and therefore, did not play in the ABL for the next three seasons. He played in the service before being honorably discharged in 1946. He returned to Wilmington that season and played two games for the Bombers. Prior to the 1946-47 season, Bernie was approached by a new franchise, the New York Knicks, to play in a new league, the BAA (Basketball Association of America). This new league was full-time, however, and Bernie turned down the offer because he realized he could make more money playing on a part-time basis in the ABL while keeping his law practice.
Unwilling to stop practicing law, Bernie played with the Jersey City Atoms in 1946-47. The team finished 14-22 and lost in the playoffs. Fliegel finished with career-highs in points (260) and scoring average (8.7) in his final professional season. Bernie finished his ABL career with 911 points in 151 games (6.0 average).
After his playing career, Bernie practiced law full-time. He began in the garment industry in New York City, but also had clients in the sports and entertainment industries. After the 1951 basketball scandals broke, Bernie represented former CCNY assistant coach Bobby Sand. In 1972, he and his wife moved from New York to Naples, Florida, where he won the Naples doubles 45+over tennis championship. He practiced law on a part-time basis until 1976 when he finally retired.
In 1995, Fliegel became the oldest player named from playing time in 1934 to date to be inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the CCNY Athletic Hall of Fame in 1967, the first basketball player to receive this honor. Fliegel still maintains a connection with his basketball past as a member of the Basketball Fraternity, a group of players from the East who gather annually in December.
Fliegel played center and forward at CCNY, 1935-38. He then played in the ABL for the Kate Smith Celtics and the Kingston Colonials in 1938-39, Troy in 1939-40, Brooklyn in 1940-41, Wilmington in 1941-42 and 1946, and Jersey City in 1946-47.
6'3", 205 pounds