Remembering Historic Blackbirds

By Matthew Mummert B’15

First Female Athlete at LIU Clair Isicson-Merle B’42
Claire Isicson-Merle was LIU’s first female athlete and an early star for women in sports. Born in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, in 1938, at just 17 years old, Merle set the world record for the 50-meter dash at the National Amateur Athletic Union Championships and captured the title in both the 50- and 100-meter dash competitions.

Mrs. Merle attended LIU from 1939 to1942 and competed in track and field and cross-country while pursuing a degree in physical education. She qualified for the 1940 Olympics in Japan, but the Games were cancelled due to World War II. Merle still managed to punch her ticket into the annals of history, joining the lineup of the famous female softball team, the New York Americanettes, where she played in Madison Square Garden under the coaching of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. The team played in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which provided the basis for the 1992 film A League of Their Own.

After Graduating from LIU, Merle became a physical education teacher in the Riverhead School District. She married Dr. James Merle in 1958 and they settled in Westhampton Beach. Merle was inducted into the LIU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2001, she passed away in 2012. 

1935-36 Men’s Basketball Team Sacrifices Olympic Gold in Protest of Nazi Regime
The 1935-36 LIU men’s basketball squad was the best in the country, with a perfect season and 36-game win streak. The team was filled with stars, several of whom would go on to careers in professional sports. They were so dominant that only three games that season were won by less than ten points. There was no doubt that the LIU roster would make up the U.S. Olympic basketball team.

Although the United States did not formally boycott the Olympics, there was significant controversy within American sports organizations and many athletes and teams decided to boycott the Games to protest anti-Semitic policies.

Based in Brooklyn, the elite LIU team was largely made up of sons and grandsons of Italian and Jewish immigrants. Much speculation surrounded the team and what they would do. Political tensions were high, and the boys had to make the toughest decision of their lives. After a secret vote held in Coach Claire Bee’s office, a unanimous decision was made amongst the players to not participate in the Olympics trials just days before Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Rhineland.

After the secret vote, the team remained silent and the story was untold. More than a half-century later, Leo Merson, one of the Jewish members of the 1935-36 team, shared his story with his daughter, Melissa Merson, on a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. Ms. Merson shared the story of her father and his teammates with the United States Olympic Committee. Months after her father’s death, she ran with the Olympic torch in honor of the 1935-36 LIU basketball team. The team was inducted into the LIU Brooklyn Athletics Hall of Fame and the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2009.

NBA Pioneer Ossie Schectman B’41
On Nov. 1 1946, LIU Hall-of-Famer Oscar “Ossie” Schectman scored the first basket in NBA history as a member of the original New York Knicks.

Born in 1919, Schectman was one of five children of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Growing up in  Kew Gardens, Queens, he learned to shoot baskets through the fire escapes at the tenement houses. Schectman was a member of the LIU Brooklyn men’s basketball team from 1938¬ to 1941, playing guard and forward on the court for legendary National Basketball Hall of Fame coach Clair Bee. With a record of 66-6 in three seasons, the small team from Brooklyn was recognized by many as the best in the country. Under the direction of Coach Bee, the team achieved an unbeaten season, winning the National Invitational Tournament (predecessor to the NCAA) in 1939 and 1941. While a Blackbird, Schectman was selected to the Converse All-American First Team in 1941.

After earning his bachelor’s degree, Schectman joined the American Basketball League, winning two championships for the Philadelphia Sphas. He was a member of the Knicks first season and played in the inaugural game of the Basketball Association of America, which became the National Basketball Association three years later. Schectman scored the first basket in professional basketball with “a two-handed underhand layup,” according to The First Tip Off, a history of the NBA’s first season. Schectman and his historic two-pointer was also honored in The First Basket, a 2008 documentary about the important role of Jewish players in the early days of basketball.

Mr. Schectman was inducted into the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame in 1994, the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 1998, and the Long Island University Athletics Hall of Fame in 2000. Upon his passing in 2013 at the age of 94, former NBA commissioner David Stern said Schectman will be remembered as “a true NBA pioneer.”

Matt Mummert is a member of the LIU Brooklyn Honors College and a recipient of the Jeannette K. Watson Fellowship. He is a four-year member of the Blackbirds men’s soccer team, captaining his junior and senior seasons. Matt will graduate with a bachelor of arts in history and political science in May 2015. He plans to attend law school in the New York metropolitan area or in his home state of Indiana.