Holman, Nathan ("Nat")

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HOLMAN, Nathan ("Nat")

(b. 19 October 1896 in New York City; d. 12 February 1995 in New York City), professional basketball player, college coach, member of the original Celtics, and recipient of many awards for playing professionally and for coaching at City College of New York (CCNY).

Holman was the son of the Russian Jewish immigrants Louis Holman, who operated a grocery store, and Mary Goldman Holman. Holman's interest in basketball, football, baseball, and soccer began in New York's Seward Park and the Educational Alliance and Henry Street Settlement. With six brothers and three sisters, he ascribed the development of his athletic prowess in four sports to the influence of his brothers, who were heavily involved in athletics. Contemporaries described Holman's basketball play as characterized by a tantalizing and deceptive change of pace, flawless dribbling and passing with an uncanny eye for spotting an open teammate. He was capable of accurate shooting from the outside or on a dead run, and he possessed excellent defensive skills, including an inherent ability to anticipate every move of his teammates and opponents on the floor. Upon graduating from New York's Commerce High in 1913, Holman matriculated to the Savage School of Physical Education while simultaneously signing to play with the professional Knickerbocker Big Five.

Holman received a B.S. degree in 1917 and accepted appointment as instructor of hygiene and coach of soccer and freshman basketball at City College of New York (CCNY). After serving a year in the U.S. Navy during World War I, he returned to CCNY and was named head basketball coach for the 1919–1920 season. His selection made him the youngest head coach in the country at twenty-three years old and simultaneously marked the completion of his master's degree at New York University (NYU).

Holman played on twelve additional professional teams, including a stint in 1917–1918 with independent teams in and around New York City when professional leagues suspended play during World War I. From the time he was selected as CCNY's head coach until 1930, Holman played a tortuous schedule of professional games. This was possible because collegiate teams played primarily on Saturday nights, and the entire season schedule ranged from thirteen to seventeen games. Also the ease of travel by railroad on the East Coast allowed Holman and other professionals to play six and seven nights a week, often finishing up with two on Sunday.

Before embarking on an illustrious career with the original Celtics, Holman played for the New York Whirlwinds, a new team organized by the boxing promoter Ted Rickard, who challenged the original Celtics to a three-game series during the spring of 1921. The first game, won by the Whirlwinds 40–27, was played before a crowd of 11,000 in New York City's Seventy-first Regiment Armory. The second contest drew a crowd of 8,000 in the Sixty-ninth Regiment Armory, where the Celtics prevailed in a tight game, 26–24. The third game was not played, and the Reach Guide (1921) explained the reasons for its cancellation: "The series created so much interest that certain gamblers tried to connect in the fixing of one of the games. Thanks to two of the games' star players, a basketball Black Sox Scandal was averted." (The reference was to baseball's 1919 World Series, in which eight Chicago White Sox players dumped the series to Cincinnati.) Since gambling on professional basketball was not uncommon among owners, players, spectators, and referees, the Reach Guide explanation appears the most plausible among a litany of reasons presented by writers.

Holman played exclusively for the original Celtics from 1921 to 1928 and established himself as one of the premier professional players of the era. The Celtics' owners, James A. Furey and his brother Thomas Furey, prevented players from switching teams by signing them to exclusive contracts with generous salaries for that time. Scheduling as many as 200 games in a season, the team compiled a winning percentage of .900 and became one of the first four teams voted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. After the Celtics disbanded, Holman played two more professional seasons.

His playing exploits are best exemplified by his numerous awards. He was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and the Helms Hall of Fame, was named as the third greatest player of the half-century, was chosen by Sport Magazine to the All-Time College All-America second team, and was chosen for Ed Wachter's All-Pro first team in 1941. He married Ruth Jackson in 1945; she died in 1967.

Holman's CCNY teams played within a team concept—short passes, set shooting, a tenacious switching man-to-man defense, an offense revolving around several pivot plays, and continual movement without the ball. This style of play led to several outstanding seasons, including 1923 (12–1), 1924 (12–1), 1932 (16–1), 1933 (13–1), and 1934 (14–1), and an overall record of 422 wins and 188 losses (.692). Of course the 1950–1951 team, the only team to win the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Tournament in the same season, was Holman's best because it was number one in the country. But during the 1951–1952 season events began to unfold that washed away most of the luster garnered by the "grand slam" team. Seven team members had been doing business with gamblers, and CCNY was heavily implicated in the first major gambling scandal in college basketball's history.

Despite Holman's self-serving pronouncements of innocence after the scandals were exposed, a thorough investigation by the governing body of public colleges in New York City uncovered a number of athletic abuses in the CCNY program. These included forging of transcripts, matriculation of unqualified students, failure by Holman to report to higher authorities an incidence of a bribe attempt, and Holman's sanctioning of an exhibition basketball trip by CCNY players to South America, where they received a kickback from local promoters. Holman was also excoriated by Judge Saul S. Streit, who believed the pronouncements by Holman and other coaches of their naïveté regarding illegal gambling on college basketball "was comical." Holman was dismissed by the New York City Board of Higher Education, but he appealed the decision to the New York State commissioner of education, who rescinded the board's action and reinstated Holman as the CCNY head coach for the 1954–1955 season. After retiring in 1960, Holman continued to operate his basketball camp and promoted basketball in Israel. He granted interviews to writers selectively because of his reluctance to discuss the 1951 scandal.

Holman's two books, Scientific Basketball (1922) and Holman on Basketball (1950), are primarily treatises on his coaching strategies. Three of the best sources describing Holman's career as a basketball player are Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver, Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports (1955); Robert W. Peterson, Cages to Jump Shots: Pro Basketball's Early Years (1990); and Murray Nelson, The Original Celtics: The New York Celtics Invent Modern Basketball (1999). Holman's role in the 1951 scandals is objectively recounted in Charles Rosen, Scandals of '51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball (1979); Stanley Cohen, The Game They Played (1977); and Albert Figone, "Gambling and College Basketball: The Scandal of 1951," Journal of Sport History 16, no. 1 (spring 1989). An obituary is in the New York Times (13 Feb. 1995).

Al Figone

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