Ben Lands

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Ben Lands (second from left) was a tenacious basketball guard who represented Canada at the 1948 Olympics and who won a national championship with the Montreal YMHA Blues in 1950.

Benjamin (Bennie) Lands

Born: February 22, 1921 (Montréal)
Died: January 13, 2014 (Montréal)

Ben Lands was a clever, patient, and effective guard who led his basketball team to the 1948 Olympics and to a national championship in 1950.

Lands played for the Young Men’s Hebrew Association team in Montréal, a hoops powerhouse in the immediate postwar years. After the 1947-48 season, Lands received the Ben Hockenstein Memorial trophy as the YMHA’s most valuable player, while the city basketball league in which he played awarded him the Duquette trophy as league MVP.

The YMHA Blues team represented Canada at the Olympics in 1948 as part of a hybrid. The Blues were joined by players from the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds. The eastern and western champions were initially going to play as units on the court with five-aside switchovers when needed, but as the Games in London neared it was decided to graft the two parts together.

The Americans were overwhelming favourites for the gold medal, but it was thought Canada would be likely to claim a silver, or bronze. In the end, the experiment failed and Canada wound up in the losing bracket, which it won handily to finish the Olympic tournament in ninth place.

The son of Jewish immigrants, Lands took up basketball at age 16, soon becoming the nucleus around which one of Canada’s greatest basketball teams formed. The 1947-48 YMHA Blues lost the Dominion title to the Vancouver Clover Leafs, but got half the Olympic nod after defeating the Clover Leafs at an Olympic qualifying tournament held at Maple Leafs Gardens in Toronto.

The qualifying showdown took place on May 10-11, 1948, a time when events in the Middle East dominated the front page. On the night the tournament opened, a testimonial dinner was held in Toronto for the boxer Barney Ross, the event sponsored by the League for a Free Palestine. Israel declared independence just days later.

Only six of the Blues players were able to travel to London for the Olympics — Lands, Sol Tolchinsky, Mendy Morein, Sydney Strulovich, Doodie Bloomfield and Murray Waxman. Land, who was the oldest at 27, got time off from his work, but had to do without a pay package for the six weeks it took to travel back and forth to Europe by steamer. The six Blues joined with eight players from UBC, but the two teams never gelled, even attending separate functions (a luncheon for the students at B.C. House, a lunch for the Montrealers at Maccabi House).

The basketball team was housed in an air force training camp that lacked a practice facility.

“They finally got us a firehall, a gym,” Lands told the Montreal Gazette two years ago. “But there were beams right in front of the baskets, so certain areas we couldn’t shoot from. Then, when we got to the Games, they gave us a ball that was like a football. So basically we weren’t prepared to play basketball.”

Canada opened the tourney with easy victories over Italy (53-37) and host Britain (44-24). They then lost a squeaker to Hungary, 37-36, before being humiliated by Brazil, 57-35. The preliminary round concluded with a close 52-50 win over Uruguay. With a 3-2 record, Canada seemed likely to make up for a shaky start in the medal round, but officials placed Canada in the consolation bracket based on points scored. Unaware of the tie-breaking rules, the Canadians, sportingly, had not run up the score on the British.

Canada steamrolled opponents in the also-ran group, finishing ninth by defeating Peru, 49-43. Canada’s final record was 6-2.

Two years later, the YMHA Blues, with Lands, as always, directing the game from the floor, claimed the national senior men’s basketball title.

Lands also played for Canada in the 1950, 1953 and 1957 Maccabiah Games in Israel, known as the Jewish Olympics. He was honorary captain for Canada at the 1997 Games.

The national champion 1949-50 Blues were inducted into the Montreal Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in 2006.

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