As fans prepare for the much-anticipated return of the National Basketball Association (NBA) season, the lesser-known world of Jewish sports recently lost one of its legendary figures.

Marvin Hershkowitz, who passed away on May 4 at age 89, was one of the most-recognized basketball talents in the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s. An all-city selection at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City’s Bronx borough, he starred at Yeshiva University as the first basketball player in school history to score 1,000 points. Later, from 1954-57, he served as an assistant coach and assistant athletic director at YU.

According to his son, Stuart Hershkowitz, vice president at the Jerusalem College of Technology, Marvin Hershkowitz left behind his NBA aspirations in order to more closely connect with Jewish tradition at YU.

“All the scouts and other experts at the time said he could play at the NBA level,” said Stuart Hershkowitz. “But my dad went in a different direction.”

Marvin Hershkowitz transferred to YU after his freshman season at the City College of New York (CCNY). This occurred during the era when CCNY handily defeated the University of Kentucky, 89-50, on March 14, 1950 at New York’s Madison Square Garden in one of the most memorable games in college basketball history. Several players from Kentucky, a member of the racially segregated Southeastern Conference, had refused to shake hands with CCNY’s black and Jewish players before the game. While Kentucky won college basketball’s national championships in 1948, 1949 and 1951, CCNY was the champion in 1950.

Marvin Hershkowitz. Credit: Courtesy of Stuart Hershkowitz.

Hershkowitz, however, was not part of that iconic moment.

Before CCNY’s title-winning season, YU’s basketball coach Bernard “Red” Sarachek discovered that Hershkowitz was seeking to transfer to the Modern Orthodox-affiliated university, despite Hershkowitz’s then-minimal religious background. Recognizing an opportunity to upgrade his basketball program with a rising star, Sarachek convinced YU president Dr. Samuel Belkin to accommodate Hershkowitz’s academic needs through the establishment of a special program designed for students without significant prior knowledge in Torah studies. Originally called the Jewish Studies Program, today that program at YU is known as the James Striar School of General Jewish Studies (JSS).

“His commitment to becoming an observant Orthodox Jew inspired the creation of JSS,” Jeffrey S. Gurock, the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at YU and a former assistant basketball coach for the school, told the YU News blog regarding Hershkowitz’s legacy. “This alone makes him one of our most iconic alumni.”

While his former CCNY teammates won a national championship in 1950, Hershkowitz studied Torah for several hours a day, while starring on the basketball court for the YU Maccabees. To this day, Hershkowitz is considered the greatest basketball player in the school’s history. He eventually immigrated to Israel in 1977.

“YU did not regret their decision,” says Stuart Hershkowitz with a smile.

A different version of this article first appeared in the Hebrew edition of Israel Hayom.

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