"Kid Holman," "Mr. Basketball," "Old Drill Master," and "the Old Professor"—are just a few of the many titles given to basketball's earliest superstar, Nat Holman. From humble beginnings on the Lower East Side to the pinnacle of college basketball—winning both the NCAA and NIT tournaments in 1950 as head coach at City College—Holman's eight-decade career as a player, coach, and author helped to establish basketball as a popular spectator sport in the first half of the 20th century. Born in 1896, about five years after Dr. James Naismith invented basketball at the YMCA in Springfield, Massachusetts, Holman burned with ambition to excel in athletics. Skinny and knock-kneed, he worked hard, challenging himself to improve. He was tough and played with aggressiveness. Undersized but quick, he dominated his peers with ball-handling ability, an accurate set-shot and dead-eye passing.
A student of basketball, Holman was a great floor leader who saw the entire court at once. He was a player's coach who was always aware of game situations and how to win, learning from hours of practicing and playing against grown men. A competitive spirit with a desire to win, he pushed his teammates and challenged them to play smart and with determination. Barnstorming with numerous professional teams in the 1910s, Holman was one of the most important and influential early stars of basketball. But when he joined the Original Celtics in 1921, his own greatness was finally appreciated so much that his nickname—"Mr. Basketball"—became synonymous with the sport. With the Celtics he introduced an exciting style of basketball that brought the professional game to national attention for the first time. It was the post and pivot play with constant motion (the center position stands with his back to the basket, seals his defender on his back and either can pass to a teammate or shoot the ball himself), zone defenses, and the switching of man-to-man defense. The greatest of the early barnstorming teams, the Celtics, with Holman as their floor leader won more than 1000 games before their dissolution for lack of competition in 1929.
Regarded as the game's greatest player of his day with indefinable court savvy, Holman attempted to share his knowledge and teach the game of basketball to young men at the City College of New York. Hired directly out of college at the age of 23, Holman introduced a street-smart style of basketball—ball handling, speed and passing—that became known as the "city game." Based on everything he knew to be effective and what he had done himself as a player, Holman taught his players to control the ball carefully, to take their time setting up offensive formations, to pass with care and to shoot only when they had an opening. He abhorred reckless play. Holman emphasized team basketball. He preached passing the ball to the open man, moving without the ball, unselfishness, and team defense. He had 30 winning seasons out of 37 and a remarkable win-loss record of 422-188.
Holman's defining moment as a coach came in 1950 when he coached City College to back-to-back tournament wins in the same season. But a disappointing moment came the following year, when four of his players were indicted in a point-shaving scandal. Although cleared of any wrongdoing, Holman was devastated by the incident and City College subsequently de-emphasized the basketball program in 1953 (they were banned from playing at non-college controlled arenas). The four players involved were banned from ever playing in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
Today, Nat Holman's contribution and legacy is evident at the highest levels of the game. Los Angeles Lakers coach Phil Jackson credits 1970s New York Knicks coach Red Holzman as a primary influence in his coaching concepts. Holzman, in turn, credited his college basketball coach, Nat Holman, as a significant influence in his coaching philosophy.
Nat Holman: The Man, His Legacy and CCNY presents the scope of Holman's accomplishments as an athlete, coach, and ambassador of the game of basketball to the world.