June 14, 2001
When Jews Had Game
The red-hot Philly basketball team has a pint-sized but flashy star shooter and an old-school coach who's more teacher than tough disciplinarian. The media constantly compares the teams to the biblical David. Sound like America's new favorite team, the Philadelphia 76ers, who took on the LA Lakers in this year's NBA finals?
Nope. It's the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team the SPHAs (pronounced "spas"), which dominated the sport in the 1920s and '30s. The flashy shooter is set-shot expert Inky Lautman and the savvy coach is Eddie Gottlieb, who was also the owner of one of the most successful teams in basketball history.
And David is the six-pointed star on the team's jerseys.
Today, the only thing Jewish about the current Sixer team is coach Larry Brown, who starred on the U.S. gold-medal team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1961 before launching his pro career. Brown was born in Brooklyn, that "other" Jewish basketball town. But there are plenty of parallels between the Hebrews, as the SPHAs were nicknamed, and today's Sixers.
Both were subject to sometimes egregious racial stereotyping.
The two newest showmen of modern basketball, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, are praised for their "athleticism" and "natural talents." Is that a stereotype that downplays their other abilities?
Such stereotypes reflect a long tradition that goes back more than 70 years, when the game emerged from the ghettos of Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore. Back then sportswriters used to wax about the gaudy skills of "natural athletes." Then the stars had names like Dutch Garfinkel and Doc Lou Sugerman, and the top teams were the Philadelphia "Hebrews," the New York Whirlwinds and the Cleveland Rosenblums.
"The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background," wrote Paul Gallico, sports editor of the New York Daily News in the 1930s, "is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness."
At the turn of the century, European Jews flooded off immigrant ships into the ghettos of the booming Eastern metropolises. New York and Philadelphia were the epicenters of the basketball world, with the dominant team, the Hebrews, ensconced in South Philly.
"Basketball is a city game," says Sonny Hill, an executive adviser with the Sixers who has run a high-school summer league for more than 35 years. "If you trace basketball back to the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, that's when the Jewish people were very dominant in the inner city. And they dominated basketball."
Although New York turned out more Jewish stars in pure numbers, the SPHAs were basketball's best known and most successful all-Jewish team. From 1918 onward, the Hebrews barnstormed across the East and Midwest, playing in a variety of semipro leagues that were precursors to the NBA. In an incredible 22-season stretch, they played in 18 championship series, losing only five. In the early years of the Depression, the SPHAs were more popular than both of Philadelphia's baseball teams, the Athletics and the Phillies.
"Every Jewish boy was playing basketball," Harry Litwack told me a few years ago, before he passed away in 1999. Litwack starred for the SPHAs in the 1930s before moving on to coach Temple University in Philadelphia for 21 years. "Every phone pole had a peach basket on it. And every one of those Jewish kids dreamed of playing for the SPHAs."
"It was absolutely a way out of the ghetto," said Dave Dabrow, a guard with the original Hebrews.
The first intercollegiate game in the East, a 6-4 shellacking of Temple by Haverford College, took place at the Temple gymnasium in March 1894. Basketball had a notorious reputation back then. The rules provided for few fouls, making the game a barely controlled melee. Players paraded on and off the court with bandaged legs and bleeding heads. This offended the Victorian sensibilities of the Protestant ruling class in many cities, leading to a temporary ban on the game at local YMCAs, which were fearful that their Christian boys would be corrupted.
Not so the Jewish, Irish, Polish and Italian communities, filled with the sons of immigrants. Basketball bridged the highly segregated Jewish and Gentile communities.
The best high-school graduates went on to play for one of the church teams, until anti-Semitism heated up. In 1918, Gottlieb and some of his former high school buddies convinced the Young Men's Hebrew Association to buy them uniforms, which featured as team symbols the Magen David and the Hebrew letters samech, pey, hey and aleph to spell "SPHA."
The SPHAs' success attracted up-and-coming stars from Jewish ghettos along the East Coast. But with the emergence of National Socialism in Germany and an escalation of anti-Semitism in the United States, basketball was sometimes a brutal experience. In the small towns in which they played, Jewish players faced incessant racial slurs and biased officials.
"The toughest place was Prospect Hall, the home of the Brooklyn Visitation," Gottlieb said. "Half the fans would come to see the Jews get killed, and the other half were Jews coming to see our boys win. They used to have a balcony that hung over the court, and they'd serve the fans bottle beer and sandwiches. Whenever something would happen down on the court that those Brooklyn fans didn't like, they'd send those bottles down at us."
At the height of their success, the SPHAs were one of the best teams in the country, sweeping their league games and challenging teams in other cities. By this time, the game had spread westward to Cleveland and Chicago. However, with travel costly, the chief rivals were in New York: the Holman-coached Hakoahs; the Celtics, a powerful Jewish-Irish team; the Knights of St. Anthony's, which represented the mixed Italian and Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint; and the New York Renaissance, the premier black team.
The black players were not allowed to play in the all-white semipro leagues that started up and failed numerous times during this era. The encounters between the "Yids" and the "Niggers" were legendary. According to William "Pop" Gates, the star of the Renaissance, in 1989 the SPHAs were renowned as a "thinking" team, while the Rens were famous for their "quickness" -- stereotypes about Jews and blacks that endure today.
By the late 1940s, dominion over the urban basketball courts had begun to pass to the fastest-growing group of urban dwellers, blacks who were migrating north from dying Southern farms in search of opportunity. The new generation of Jews began moving on to other pursuits -- not to mention out to the suburbs. The depleted SPHAs eventually morphed into the Philadelphia Warriors, owned by the same Eddie Gottlieb ("The Mogul"), who coached the first champions of what became the National Basketball Association. Gottlieb, who died in 1979, eventually sold the team to San Francisco interests in 1962 and became the NBA's official schedule-maker.
The remnants of Philadelphia's basketball tradition rest on the shoulders of coach Brown, an adopted favorite son. Much to the delight of the celebrity-starved NBA, Brown and Iverson have emerged as the Batman and Robin of modern basketball, an unlikely blend of old-world tradition and hip-hop yet hardscrabble dedication. No matter how this NBA series ends, the Sixers, cast as David against Goliath, do their history proud.
Jon Entine (www.jonentine.com), a native Philadelphian based in Los Angeles, is author of "Taboo: Why Black Athletes Dominate Sports and Why We're Afraid To Talk About It" (PublicAffairs, $14), which was just released in paperback.