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, and a pioneer of basketball who was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964.

Holman was the fourth of ten children of Russian Jewish immigrants, Louis Holman and Mary Goldman. His father ran a small grocery, where Holman and his six brothers helped with stocking and shelving. Nat began playing basketball at a local settlement house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but he also participated in other sports; his enthusiasm for athletics was motivated by the example of his older brothers and also by his natural ability. At Commerce High School, Holman played four sports—basketball, football, soccer (as a goalie), and baseball (as a pitcher and shortstop).

After graduating from high school in 1913, Holman enrolled at Savage School of Physical Education. Rather than play college basketball, he immediately accepted an offer to play professional basketball for the Hoboken, New Jersey, team, where he scored twenty-three points in his first professional game. During his college years, Holman also played for New York’s Knickerbocker Big Five, which paid him $5 a game, as well as for the professional teams of Greenville, New York, and Norwalk of the Connecticut League. He graduated from Savage with a B.S. degree in 1917 and took a position coaching the junior varsity basketball team at the City College of New York (CCNY) for the 1917–1918 season.

In the 1917–1918 season Holman played for independent teams in the New York City region when all the top leagues suspended play for World War I. From 1918 to 1919 he served in the navy. Holman then returned to coach at CCNY, where he also coached varsity soccer and taught courses in hygiene; at the age of twenty-three he was the youngest college coach in the United States. Meanwhile, he enrolled at New York University, where he earned a master’s degree in physical education in 1920.

From 1919 to 1930 Holman led a double life as a player and a coach. In the 1919–1920 season Holman played for Jersey City of the Interstate League, Albany of the New York State League, Scranton of the Penn State League, Germantown of the Eastern League, and with several independent New York City—based squads. His CCNY team went 13–3, playing mostly on Saturday nights, allowing him to travel to play professional games during the week.

During the 1920–1921 season, Holman’s CCNY team went 11–4. That season he played once again for German-town and Scranton and was also on the Westfield, Massachusetts, team of the Interstate League and the New York Whirlwinds, an independent team owned by the famous sports promoter Tex Rickard. As a professional player, Holman was known as a great ball handler, able to see the entire court and anticipate his teammates’ movements. He was an excellent scorer—in 1920–1921 he led the Eastern League in scoring while with Germantown. He was also famous for being able to draw fouls on opponents. One promotional brochure from 1921 referred to him as “the cleverest man with a basketball playing today.”

From 1921 to 1928 Holman played exclusively for the famous original Celtics team of New York, one of four teams enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts. During that time, the Celtics played in the Eastern League in 1921–1922, winning the championship, and the Metropolitan League in 1922–1923, compiling a 12–0 record before withdrawing from that league and returning to the Eastern League. When the Eastern League collapsed in January 1923, the Celtics barnstormed throughout the Northeast and Midwest, even engaging in a southeastern tour one year. The Celtics returned to league play in the American Basketball League (ABL) for the 1926–1927 and 1927–1928 seasons, winning the league championship both seasons. Playing as many as 200 games in a season, they won more than 90 percent.

After the 1927–1928 season the league broke up the Celtics; their great success discouraged fans in other cities and attendance at games not involving the Celtics dropped precipitously. In 1928–1929 Holman played for the New York Hakoahs, an all-Jewish squad competing in the ABL. In 1929–1930 Holman played his final season of professional basketball with the Chicago Bruins of the ABL.

All this time, Holman had been running a summer camp, Camp Scatico, in the Catskill Mountains northwest of New York City (he had purchased the camp in the early 1920s) as well as coaching at CCNY, where he had compiled a record of 134–40 in eleven years. When he was offered another job as director of health and physical education at a new Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) in Manhattan, he chose to retire as a player at the age of thirty-three.

Holman continued to coach at CCNY, and in 1950 his squad performed a singular act, now impossible; it won both the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Invitational Tournament (NIT) titles. The NIT was, at that time, the more prestigious tournament. The gold of this victory turned to dross the next year when it was discovered that players at many top colleges, including CCNY, had accepted bribes to shave points to help gamblers meet the point spread in many games. Though Holman was never accused and never knew anything of his players’ behavior in the point fixing, the incident called his coaching into question and he was forced to resign in 1952. At CCNY’S request, he returned to coach again in the 1955–1956 and 1959–1960 seasons, compiling a total record at CCNY of 422 wins and 188 losses—one of college basketball’s all-time best winning percentages. But the college had greatly deemphasized basketball following the scandals, and Holman never recovered from what he felt was his players’ betrayal of him, their school, and the sport.

After his retirement in 1960, Holman continued to run Camp Scatico. He coached in Israel and became a goodwill ambassador for basketball and Israeli sports. He remained in contact with his players over the years, encouraging them to support sports for Israel and visiting with them at CCNY basketball games.

Holman had married late in life, wedding Ruth Jackson in 1945, and when his wife died at the age of fifty-two in 1967, he was devastated. In the last years of his life he resided at the Hebrew Home for the Aged in the Riverdale section of the Bronx. Reluctant to see many visitors, and having outlived his teammates, most of his family, and many of his players, he died on 12 February 1995 at the age of ninety-eight.

Holman was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1964 after being nominated by his longtime friend and teammate Joe Lapchick. Among the qualities that made Holman a legendary figure in the sport were his unprecedented analytical abilities regarding basketball: despite his critical nature and aloofness, no one ever questioned Holman’s innovative genius as a player and a coach. He wrote four books on basketball that were widely read and praised, and his pioneering talents in the early days of the sport earned him the sobriquet “Mr. Basketball,” by which he was known to fans of the game.

Although Holman did not write a full-length autobiography, his book Scientific Basketball (1922) contains a chapter on his early playing career. One of his other coaching books, Holman on Basketball (1950), includes his comments about the victories in the NCAA and NIT tournaments in 1950. Murray Nelson, The Originals: The New York Celtics Invent Modern Basketball (1999), is a lengthy study of the original Celtics from 1915 to 1928 with featured selections on each of the players, with emphasis on Holman and Joe Lapchick, the two best-known players. Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver, Encyclopedia of Jews in Sports (1955), features a biography of Holman. Charles Rosen, Scandals of ‘51: How the Gamblers Almost Killed College Basketball (1978), is an examination of the college basketball point-shaving scandal of 1951; Holman’s life and career are discussed in length. There is an obituary in the New York Times (13 Feb. 1995).

Murry R. Nelson

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