A Brief History of (March) Madness
April 5, 2013

Are you enjoying March Madness? Here at the Tenement Museum, when we’re not mourning our brackets or looking forward to the NBA playoffs, we are looking into some of the roots of basketball on the Lower East Side. Did you know James Naismith, who invented the sport in 1891, was an immigrant? He may not have been a New Yorker, but Naismith’s innovative new game spread like wildfire throughout our fair city.

Tenement dwellers often participated in basketball through the settlement houses on the Lower East Side. These organizations were established to improve the health, education, housing, and living and working conditions of poor and working class Americans in the late 1800’s. They served (and in some cases, still serve) as neighborhood centers where new immigrants learned American politics, language, and customs.

Maurice Green, third from right, at age 19

Maurice Green, third from right, at age 19

Settlement houses often used basketball leagues to draw young men to their programs. Teenagers like Maurice L. Greene, who worked at M. Zwaifler & Co at 103 Orchard (the building which now houses our Visitor Center), joined teams at houses across the Lower East Side. These two photos were donated by his son, who recalls his father playing on the senior team and coaching on the junior team at the Stuyvesant Neighborhood House.

Maurice Green, back left, at age 19

Maurice Green, back left, at age 19

Basketball continued to grow in popularity throughout the 20th century, and in 1946 the New York Knickerbockers became a charter member of the newly-formed Basketball Association of America and later the National Basketball Association. The Knicks won their debut game against the Toronto Huskies on November 1, 1946 and a city-wide love affair was born.

The same year the Knicks became New York City’s professional team, streetball was becoming popular throughout the city. Pick-up games and tournaments became a staple of New York City life on courts from Rucker Park in Harlem (where stars like Wilt Chamberlain, Julius Irving, and Kareem Abdul-Jabar got started) to The Cage in the West Village and throughout parks in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

A Lower East Side basketball game, year unknown; Photo by Allen Silverman

A Lower East Side basketball game, year unknown; Photo by Allen Silverman

The Lower East Side has remained passionate about basketball.  Just last winter, the neighborhood was reinvigorated with the basketball spirit as it watched the Knicks’ Jeremy Lin single-handedly bring back to life a season that had seemed doomed. Lin, the son of Chinese immigrants, led a winning streak in February 2012 and sparked a following known as “Linsanity”. With nearly 40% of our neighborhood’s population speaking a dialect of Chinese, local residents took particular pride in Lin, whose family and experiences were unusual for the NBA but very familiar to Lower East Siders. In fact, Lin actually spent a month at the peak of “Linsanity” crashing on his brother’s couch on the Lower East Side, while he looked for his own apartment.

Since its inception in 1891, basketball has of course changed quite a bit, as has our neighborhood. But regardless of where you’re from, or where you’re cheering, there’s nothing quite like the thrill of March Madness.

Posted by Emily Mitzner (proud devotee of Hoya Paranoia) and Dana Friedman (a delusional Timberwolves fan)