Seton Hall Sociology Professor Reflects on Basketball Career and The State of the Game Today

The inspiration for this story comes from my second day as a college student. On this day in September 2017, I arrived at Seton Hall at 8 a.m. for an Intro to Sociology class taught by a man named Robert Podhurst. In the first class, he said two things that stood out to me and my classmates: 1) that the way to win the war in Afghanistan is to bomb their poppy fields; and 2) that he had been dunked on by Dr. J during his professional basketball career. Yeah, that Dr. J. Julius Erving, not an actual Dr. like one obtained a PHD or M.D. but a Dr. of the game of basketball. Throughout the semester, Professor Podhurst brought up a number of sports related issues and anecdotes about his basketball career in class and I thought he was the perfect person to profile for this extended piece.

Dr. Robert Podhurst was born in 1942 and grew up in the Bronx, playing for Taft High School, a public school on East 172nd street near the Grand Concourse and the Cross Bronx Expressway in what is now a run-down neighborhood ravaged by the crack epidemic of the 1980s known for being the birthplace of hip-hop. But when Podhurst was growing up, the high school was divided 70/30 between black and white with “no latinos or Asians,” Podhurst said. The high school is now predominantly black and latino, but the team when he was there was divided 50/50 between black and white. Podhurst didn’t make the team his sophomore but played his junior and senior years. Said Podhurst, “Our team was better than .500, good not great. I got the opportunity to play at MSG (Madison Square Garden) and I averaged about 8-10 points per game.”

The real competition came after the regular season in summer playground leagues, where the best players from the city played against each other in epic games. Podhurst says he played against and with guys who went to UTEP and Loyola (Ill.), who both won national championships and broke the color barrier in the 1960’s. In fact, Podhurst played against Jerry Harkness, the elderly man frequently shown sitting near Sister Jean during Loyola’s run to the Final Four this year, who attended Taft’s archrival Dewitt Clinton.

Podhurst says that the premier league for high school and returning college players in the summer was in Greenwich Village and that being invited to play at Rucker Park in Harlem “meant you’ve arrived” as a basketball player in NYC. Podhurst says he was invited to play at both leagues. “I was lucky to meet the right people,” he said. “I knew what my role would be and it worked out pretty well.”

I asked Podhurst about the legendary Connie Hawkins, who many say is the best player they’ve seen in person. Podhurst responded that Hawkins was “extraordinary but not interested in defense” and recalled a moment when Hawkins was being guarded by Tom “Satch” Sanders, a starter on Bill Russell-led Boston Celtics teams. Hawkins stopped on a dime against his elite, older defender and bounced the ball of the backboard to himself for a dunk, a move that made people “literally fall out of trees,” Podhurst said.

After high school, Podhurst accepted a full scholarship offer to Yeshiva University in Manhattan, after receiving offers from Fairfield, St Peter’s University, and St. Francis (Brooklyn). Despite being Division III, Yeshiva played and scrimmage against elite Division I teams like St. Johns, and at the time NYU, led by Cal Ramsey. Podhurst average a little more in college than he did in school and was far from being the star of his team. However, he was blessed with having a coach at Yeshiva that prepared him for the next level.

The next level for Podhurst was not the NBA or the fledgling ABA, but a career playing professional basketball in Israel. Interspersed with graduate school at the New School for social research in New York City, Podhurst played eight years of professional basketball for Maccabi Tel-Aviv, which was the Israeli premier league champ from 1969-1992. He later joined a team in the lowest division of Israeli basketball, which is set up like the Premier League in English Soccer and the majority of European sports leagues, where there are four tiers, the Premier League being the highest and where teams are promoted and demoted based on performance.

If the NBA went by Europe’s rules, the lowly New York Knicks would be in the worst league by now because of six or seven straight losing seasons. The team Podhurst joined was in the north of Israel, which allowed him to buy a farm despite a low salary for players in those days and appease his wife. The team Podhurst joined quickly moved up to from the fourth to the second in the league by winnin, and added more Americans to go along with Podhurst and a team of Israeli native, a 6’8 Forward from Davidson and Carl Winfree, a guard from Sacred Heart.

The anecdote involving Julius Erving comes from a summer league game in the late ’60s or early 760s, the exact year and date being lost to the fog of memory. According to Podhurst, “He ran me through a lot of picks, the vertical was real, he could really elevate.” Podhurst admitted that Erving dunked on him multiple times and that while he wasn’t much of a trash talker himself, Hall of Fame point guard Tiny Archibald, another summer league participant, talked trash to him. Podhurst asked Tiny why he didn’t pass him the ball more often and Tiny responded, “If you got the ball what would you do with it.” Podhurst had no comeback because, by his own admission, he was a role player who was a good defender and never dribbled or missed an outside jumper.

After finally hanging up his sneakers in 1979, Podhurst got his PhD. and turned towards the fields of business and academia, eventually settling in Montclair, N.J. Toward the end of my interview with the player turned professor, I asked him a series of questions about issues facing the game of basketball at all three levels today.

Podhurst believes the rise in European players being taken in the NBA draft is due to superior coaching in Europe compared to America. Coaches in Europe are certified as opposed to being someone’s dad as they are in many youth leagues in the U.S. With better coaching, talent is recognized earlier and different skills are taught. The back to the basket center isn’t emphasized and taller players are taught to handle and shoot threes, which makes European youngsters like “Unicorn” (Kristaps Porzingis) and “The Greek Freak” (Giannis Atetokounmpo) more prepared for today’s NBA, which emphasizes shooting threes. Podhurst also thinks that AAU hurts American players and gives them an inflated ego at an early age.

I then brought up the debate regarding LeBron or Jordan being the greatest player of all-time. Podhurst quickly rejected the notion of comparing the two silly saying that,“Both are fantastic players and it’s silly to compare the two because their eras and supporting casts were completely different.”

Podhurst called the one-and-done rule “un-American” and said that players should be allowed to go pro at the age 18 if they can vote and serve in the military. He also said that college athletes shouldn’t be paid but should be allowed to “go back to college on a full ride and complete their degree,” a proposal similar to what the Commission on College Basketball came up with earlier this month.

On the recent revelation about Ranney School buying players houses and the rise of transfers in New Jersey High School Basketball, Podhurst said that adults take advantage of the rules and ruin the game for kids. He added that kids should be allowed to transfer without having to sit, and adults should be punished instead of players. Podhurst added that nearly every non-public school in New Jersey recruits and giving kids housing is nothing new, in fact, he had a Trinidadian player live in his house in Montclair when his son attended Bergen Catholic in the early 2000s.

Finally, we discussed the closure of famed basketball powerhouse St. Anthony in Jersey City. Podhurst said that (Former St. Anthony coach Bob). “Hurley is an iconic figure,” he said. “I brought players to him, asking him to tell the players how good they were or not. He was always accommodating. Hurley was a different type of individual, very tough on kids, very honest.”

True words from a man who has seen everything in more than 50 years around the game of basketball.

 Dr. Robert Podhurst

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