Ethnic distillations of any broad topic are generally a hard sell; they too often feel like turgid footnotes or reductive braggadocios. As with Daniel Cassidy’s book How the Irish Invented Slang, David Vyorst’s documentary The First Basket attempts to transcend these inherent handicaps by coating its ambitions in a thin novelty-trivia crust. The result is a light, innocuous and ultimately self-marginalizing tone. The par-cooked center of this stale knish is a doughy “didjaknow” concerning the overwhelming, and overwhelmingly forgotten, abundance of Jewish players in early basketball leagues, one of whom scored the titular basket in the NBA’s first official game. These statistics speak proudly for themselves. Indeed, the film’s most cogent argument suggests that the proliferation of basketball as a national interest would not have occurred as swiftly, or with the same resonance, were it not for the passion of urbanized Jewish-Americans.
These potentially piquant factoids, however, are soured by watered-down racial speculation: For example, the forced dichotomy between the alienated ethos of the early-20th-century immigrant and the supposedly antithetical “team values” taught by basketball (the narrative ignores its own irony when these principles are readily disposed of in point-shaving scandals, alluded to only briefly and even vaguely defended). Furthermore, the documentarians unsatisfactorily gloss over what should be the central pillars of their thesis: the reasons that basketball specifically attracted the Jewish male in the first place. Why not Italian or Irish, who had equal numbers in turn-of-the-century metropolitan slums? The scholarly talking heads discuss the birth of “muscular Judaism” while reminding us of the self-imposed cerebral effete stereotype: we’re barraged with glib racial profiles.
All of this should be bearable, of course. The film was designed as a social docu-novelty, not a treatise on ethnic identity. Unforgiveable, however, are the kitschy, Photoshopped graphics that maddeningly mock the defenseless interviewees from the sidelines, and the raggedy editing that offers no help in the way of tension or closure (though it does cut legitimate b-ball titans like Red Auerbach off in mid-sentence repeatedly). And for a technically deficient docu-novelty, First Basket sorely lacks a sense of humor; what’s missing is a playfully revisionist subtext along the lines of “Gentiles Can’t Jump.”