With the National Basketball Association (NBA) season in full swing, the casual hoops fan likely knows the significance of the name “Naismith,” but might not be as familiar with the name “Gottlieb.”
Dr. James Naismith invented basketball at a Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in 1891. Turn the clock forward to 1917, and Eddie Gottlieb founded the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association—SPHAS, pronounced spas—whose basketball team became a national sensation by winning seven American League championships from 1934 to 1945. The modern NBA, then, was founded in 1946.
Particularly in New York and Philadelphia, Jewish players, coaches and administrators from teams such as the Philadelphia SPHAS were crucial to the development of college and professional basketball during the first half of the 20th century.
As industrialization, immigration, and urbanization drastically transformed America at the turn of the 20th century, many Jewish Americans saw basketball as an ideal sport since it taught teamwork, cooperation, discipline, and obedience. During the Progressive era, the popularization of basketball among Jewish youths in urban areas primarily occurred both in settlement houses and at communal institutions.
Jewish youths on New York’s Lower East Side played basketball on playgrounds and at schoolyards. The formation of the Public School Athletic League (PSAL) in the early 1900s allowed players to gain experience in organized, competitive settings. By the middle of the decade, City College of New York (CCNY) established a basketball team full of local Jewish men. Players such as Barney Sedran, Ira Streusand, and Harry Brill honed their skills at CCNY and upon graduating, and began to play in the various professional leagues in eastern cities.
Rivaling New York in basketball influence was Philadelphia. Peter Horvitz, author of The Big Book of Jewish Sports Heroes, told JNS.org that the Philadelphia SPHAS grew out of both the public school system and a local Jewish social club.
Sometimes called “The Wandering Jews,” the SPHAS players wore Hebrew letters on their jerseys. The team’s uniform tops featured samach, pey, hey, aleph—Hebrew letters spelling SPHAS—and a Jewish star. In case opponents or spectators did not understand, the back of the team’s road uniforms said “Hebrews.”
Gottlieb, the SPHAS founder, was a Russian-Jewish immigrant. According to Rich Westcott, author of The Mogul: Eddie Gottlieb, Philadelphia Sports Legend and Pro Basketball Pioneer, the popularity of basketball in the Jewish community extended well into the first half of the 20th century with Red Auerbach, Red Holzman, Dolph Schayes, Max Zaslofsky, Arnie Risen, Harry Litwack and others playing dominant roles in the college and professional ranks.
Westcott said Gottlieb “goes way back before the NBA.”
“He had many facets to his personality,” Westcott told JNS.org. “He was absolutely brilliant and was one of the most interesting characters in sports and one of the founders of the NBA.”
Gottlieb was also a born promoter. Going back to the 1920s, he promoted Negro League baseball games, pro wrestling matches, the Harlem Globetrotters basketball team, and even entertainers such as Joey Bishop.
The SPHAS team, through a series of metamorphoses, survives now as the International Elite, the eternal rivals of the Harlem Globetrotters.
“He was a great scheduler and a motivator,” Westcott said of Gottlieb. “He was involved in the Jewish community and he made it clear he was Jewish. He went to synagogue every week. This was a big part of his life.”
Horvitz said Gottlieb—who eventually became the owner of the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors, which he moved to San Francisco—“had a tremendous impact on the sport.”
“He had much to do with the rules of the game and he was in charge of scheduling for the NBA for 30 years,” Horvitz told JNS.org.
Horvitz said Jewish coaches have been especially successful in basketball, including Auerbach (who won nine titles with the Boston Celtics), Brown, Nat Holman, Holzman, and Schayes.
“Auerbach was one of the most successful coaches in the history of basketball, but even more important, perhaps, was the part he played in the integration of the sport, not only the introduction of black players, but the introduction of the first black coach,” Horvitz said.
Barney Sedran, half of the “Heavenly Twins” with Marty Friedman, was one of the pioneers of professional basketball. At only 5-foot-4, he proved that basketball was a game of intelligence and skill, not just height and brute force. Before his retirement from playing in 1926, he was the shortest, yet highest-paid player in professional basketball.
“The two qualities that Jewish players and coaches brought to basketball that made them successful were passion and intelligence,” Horvitz said. “Those early players played the game hard and with great aggression. They also honed their skills and used strategy to a degree that other players, perhaps, did not.”
Holman, known as “Mr. Basketball,” was a member of the original Celtics of New York, one of the greatest teams of all time, from 1920 to 1928. He helped the team capture the national championship in 1927 and is equally remembered for his 41-year career as the coach at CCNY.
There are 27 Jewish members of the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. One of them is Red Holzman. According to Hall of Fame spokesman Matt Zeysing, Holzman was one of the great teachers of basketball.
“Holzman teams played basketball the way the game was meant to be played—hard, selfless, tough, and with a premium placed on teamwork and trust,” Zeysing told JNS.org. “He was one of the great minds in basketball and his championship teams helped earn him a spot in the Hall of Fame. The Holzman era of basketball spanned five decades, and during that time Red touched the game at every level and the results were always spectacular.”
Other influential players include Tal Brody, who led the 1977 Maccabi Tel Aviv team to Israel’s first European Championship Clubs Cup, and Bunny Levitt, who set the free throw-record of 499 in 1935 (a record that still stands). The 5-foot-4 Levitt later appeared with the Harlem Globetrotters.
“Two others who should not be forgotten are Red Klotz, a member of the SPHAS who purchased the team and then managed them in their numerous contests against the Harlem Globetrotters and Max Zaslofsky,” Horvitz said. “When Max retired from the NBA in 1956, he left with 7990 points, the league’s third highest of all-time. Max was famous for his one-handed push shot and he was the sports idol of young Sandy Koufax.”
Current NBA commissioner David Stern, another Jew, announced he would be retiring in 2014. Stern grew up in Teaneck, NJ, and went on to change basketball in a big way. He started working for the NBA in 1966, when the league had 10 franchises, and became commissioner in 1984. Under his watch, the league expanded to 30 teams and into Canada. He also helped start the WNBA, a professional women’s league.
Still, experts agree Gottlieb remains the central figure when it comes to the Jewish influence on basketball. As fellow Hall of Famer Litwack once said, “Eddie Gottlieb was about as important to the game of basketball as the basketball.”