Holman, Nat : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Holman, Nat

Known as "Mr. Basketball," Holman is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. An early star of professional basketball, he played for the Original Celtics, the greatest of the early barnstorming teams. One of the game's most accurate shooters, a terrific ball handler, and great floor leader who saw the entire court at once, Holman was named to the Associated Press' "First Team of the Half-Century (1900-1950)" as the third greatest player of that era (behind George Mikan and Hank Luisetti). He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame, and the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

While still playing, Nat began to coach basketball at the City College of New York. In 1950, he led the Beavers to titles in both the NCAA and NIT tournaments, the only time this double was ever accomplished. Red Holzman, Hall of Fame coach of the New York Knicks in the 1970s, played under Holman in the early 1940s and said, "He had a lot to do with the development of the game...He preached team basketball, passing the ball to the open man, moving without the ball, unselfishness, defense. He taught me a lot of things that I preached later on (coaching the Knicks to their only two NBA titles)."

Holman was always very conscious of being Jewish. He said of his days as a Celtic, "...during my career as a professional basketball player --especially when I was the only Jewish player on the Celtics (Davey Banks joined the team in 1926) -- I was very much aware of the Jewish following that supported me in a number of cities on the circuit. While I always played at my very best, I tried even harder when I knew the Jewish community was rooting for me."

In 1949, Holman was the first American coach to travel to Israel and teach Israelis how to play basketball. Holman also encouraged his former players to support Israel. Irwin Dambrot, the captain of the great 1950 CCNY team, said: "...He would call me and say 'How are you doing, Irwin?' I'd say, 'I'm doing well' and he'd say, 'If you're doing well, send $200 to Sports for Israel. We need the money.' He raised millions for Sports for Israel." From 1973-77, he was the President of the United States Committee Sports for Israel, sponsors of the U.S. Maccabiah Games Team.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. Oct 19, 1896 - d. Feb 12, 1995

Career Highlights:
As a player, Holman was one of the most important and influential early stars of professional basketball. Born on the lower East Side of New York City to Russian immigrant parents, Holman learned the game at the playgrounds and parks of his immigrant community. He quickly showed his skills and even in elementary school, Holman was a star, leading P.S. 62 to the city championship. He followed that up by leading Commerce High School to the city championship in the early 1910s. While playing at Savage School for Physical Education, Holman was a member of a number of professional teams in the late 1910s, but it was when he joined the great Original Celtics in 1921 that his own greatness was finally appreciated.

With his dazzling passing ability, extraordinary dribbling skills, and leadership qualities, Holman led the Celtics to the national title in 1921. The barnstorming Celtics (who are enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fall as a team) brought the pro game to national attention for the first time. The Celtics did belong to the American Basketball League (the first national league), but were disbanded because they so dominated the other teams. Holman and the Celtics are credited with many innovations, including the post and pivot play (Holman taught center Dutch Dehnert to step towards the pass, thus sealing his defender on his back: it is still a basic key to success in today's game), zone defenses, and switching man-to-man defenses. Holman played in the ABL for Chicago and Syracuse after leaving the Celtics. He played professionally until 1930.

Holman began to coach CCNY in 1919, while he was still a player. He eventually coached CCNY for 37 seasons and compiled a 423-190 record. In 1950, he led City to an unprecedented achievement, winning both the NIT and NCAA tournaments in one season (they won both at Madison Square Garden within a 10-day period). Legendary LIU coach Clair Bee said: "No college team will ever duplicate this fabulous achievement." Towards the end of the 1950 regular season, however, it looked like the CCNY basketball team would not be invited to any post-season tournament. After rising to No. 7 in the AP poll earlier in the year, CCNY went through a second-half slump, during which they lost to Canisius, Niagara, and Syracuse. Only by sweeping the so-called "subway series" among metropolitan New York schools (Manhattan and NYU) did they earn an invitation to the NIT. Many believed the unranked 17-5 City team was headed for an early exit.

In the first round of the 12-team NIT, City began its remarkable run by defeating 12th-ranked San Francisco, the defending NIT champions, 65-46. In the quarterfinals, CCNY caused their critics to take notice as they routed No. 3 Kentucky, the two-time defending NCAA champion, 89-50. It was the worse loss in Kentucky coach Adolph Rupp's career, and the Kentucky state legislature passed a resolution calling for the capitol building's flag to be flown at half mast! In the semis, City defeated No. 6 Duquesne, 62-52, earning the Beavers a trip to the NIT final and an invitation to the NCAA tournament the following week (unable to choose between CCNY, St. John's and Duquesne, the selection committee decided to invite whichever advanced furthest in the NIT; thus, City got the invitation). In the NIT final, City defeated the top-ranked team in the nation, Bradley, 69-61. Holman pulled himself out of bed with a 103-degree fever to lead the Beavers to the title. The Cinderella CCNY team was the toast of New York; they were honored with a reception at City Hall two days later.

The following week, their remarkable run continued into the less-prestigious 8-team NCAA tournament. CCNY and Bradley were only the fifth and sixth teams to compete in both the NIT and NCAA. In 1949, Kentucky won the NCAA tourney, but was eliminated in the first round of the NIT; no team had ever won both tournaments in the same year. The City team defeated No. 2 Ohio State, 56-55, and No. 5 North Carolina State, 78-73 to earn a trip to the final, and a rematch with top-ranked Bradley. In the final game, City was leading by one with ten seconds remaining when Bradley's leading scorer Gene Melchiorre drove for the go-ahead basket. Melchiorre collided with Irwin Dambrot, City's captain, but no foul was called. Dambrot gathered the ball and threw a long pass to teammate Norm Mager for the final basket of City's thrilling 71-68 victory. They accomplished what no team had ever done, winning both the NCAA and NIT tournaments.

Holman assembled a unique mixture of local New York talent. The 1950 City team was the first NCAA champion to have Black players in its starting line-up. The following year, however, disaster struck in a manner that broke Holman's heart. A number of players from several New York area teams, including four CCNY regulars, were indicted in a point-shaving scandal that rocked the sport. Thirty-two players from CCNY, NYU, LIU, and other schools were involved. Although cleared of any wrongdoing, Holman was devastated by the incident, and CCNY subsequently de-emphasized the basketball program in 1953 (they had been banned from playing at the Garden). The players involved in the scandal were banned from ever playing in the NBA. In response, the NCAA doubled its field to 16 teams and outlawed dual participation in the two tournaments; there would never again be a two-tournament sweep.

New York City

Career Dates:
Holman played at the Savage School for Physical Education, and at New York University, 1916-1919. He played professionally from 1916-1930. Nat coached CCNY from 1919-1960.

Physical description:
5'11", 165 pounds

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Great Jews in Sports by Robert Slater (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2000)
encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
The Official NBA Encyclopedia: Third Edition, edited by Jan Hubbard (New York: Doubleday, 2000)
The Originals: The New York Celtics Invent Modern Basketball, by Murray Nelson (Bowling Green: Bowling Green University Press, 1999)

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