Before I self-published my novel Jewball last October, and before Thomas & Mercer rescued me from certain permanent obscurity, I got a call from my mother. She said, “Your father and I think you should change the title because some people might find it offensive.”
“I don’t care what some people think,” I said.
And I still don’t.
The title Jewball represents a point of pride for me. The book is about Jewish basketball players in the 1930s, a time when global anti-Semitism was nearing its peak. In the U.S., though, Jews had started to move out of the immigrant ghetto and into the mainstream. They were getting educated. They were getting powerful. And they dominated professional basketball.
Old-school Jewish basketball didn’t much resemble what we see today. They played below the rim. They jumped ball after every made basket. Well into that decade, they had to play in cages because bigots in the crowd would throw broken bottles at them. It was a gritty fight in front of a tough crowd. And the guys who played it called it Jewball, without hesitation or neurosis.
So in calling my novel Jewball, I’m honoring the memory and achievements of players like Inky Lautman, Harry Litwack, Gil Fitch, and Shikey Gothofer, many of whom have been forgotten by history. I want to reclaim their legacy and their unmatchable contribution to the world’s greatest game. People should know that Jewish men played the game hard and played it well.
When I search for the word “Jewball” on Twitter, I don’t see ethnic slurs. Instead, I see references to Jewish Community Center rec leagues in cities like Cleveland and Durham, where young Jewish guys—the spiritual and ethnic heirs to the characters I wrote about—are excited for their Tuesday-night run down the court. “Jewball is gonna be epic,” they say. It will be, because it always has been.
When it came time for Thomas & Mercer to fully unleash Jewball on the world, some people in the company were understandably nervous. They wanted me to come up with an alternate title because, like my parents, they were worried that some people might be offended. I thought of Inky’s Game—referring to the main character, Inky Lautman—but that fell kind of flat. The editors liked Inglorious Baskets, because the central team in the book spends a lot of time fighting homegrown American Nazis. It seemed like a funny idea, but after a couple of days it also started to seem derivative.
Finally, I got an email from Thomas & Mercer saying they had decided to keep Jewball as the title. They might even have called it genius.
To the book’s genius, I cannot speak. But I do know it’s full of action and romance and fun, and there’s lots and lots of basketball. Plus it’s got that awesome title.