Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.

Wilt Chamberlain’s Jewish Role Models

October 14, 2013 9:28 am 2 comments

Wilt Chamberlain wearing his Harlem Globetrotters uniform in 1959. He played one season for the team, after which Jewish basketball pioneer Eddie Gottlieb convinced him to leave for the Philadelphia Warriors. Photo: Fred Palumbo, World Telegram staff photographer via Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.orgWith the 2013-14 National Basketball Association season set to begin Oct. 29, this month also marks the 14th anniversary of the death of Wilt Chamberlain, one of the greatest players ever. Beyond his eye-popping statistics, a closer look at the 7-foot-1 center’s life reveals the giant influence of Jewish role models.

Robert Cherry, who played basketball at Chamberlain’s alma mater, Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School, explains that “lots of Jewish kids” went to the school. After Chamberlain attended the University of Kansas and played for the Harlem Globetrotters exhibition team, basketball pioneer Eddie Gottlieb would convince him to join the NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors. Gottlieb also got him a summer job at Kutsher’s, the well-known Borscht Belt resort, where Chamberlain bonded with owner Milton Kutsher. Ike Richman signed Chamberlain to his first contract with the Warriors, Stan Lorber was his personal physician, and Sy Goldberg was his lawyer and the executor of his estate.

What is the common thread among Chamberlain’s mentors?

“Besides them being Jewish, they were people first, Jewish men second, and the traits that made them successful were traits lots of successful people have,” Cherry, author of  “Wilt: Larger Than Life,” tells “Wilt responded to that. They gave him direction and he admired their discipline, values, ethics, their performance and sense of humor.”

Chamberlain, who died in October 1999, is the only player to score 100 points in an NBA game, and to average more than 50 points (or even 40) per game in a season. He averaged better than 30 points and 20 rebounds per game over the course of his career, while no other player ever produced those averages during a single season. He won scoring titles in seven seasons, and 11 rebounding titles. He once even led the league in assists.

But while the salient image of Chamberlain is his domination of NBA courts, he also left his mark on the Borscht Belt—the chain of resorts in upstate New York’s Catskill Mountains that were a popular vacation spot for New York City Jews, peaking from the 1920s until the 1970s.

“Summertime also meant getting away from the hot city and venturing to Kutsher’s Country Club in the Catskill Mountains, where the air was clear and refreshing, and the creamed herring alone was worth the trip,” Cherry writes in his book. “It was also at this resort that, in the summer of 1954, [Eddie] Gottlieb, with the help of Haskell Cohen, then the NBA publicity director, had landed Wilt, a budding scholastic star, a job as a bellhop.”

Milton Kutsher, owner of the resort with his wife Helen, made a lasting impression on him. Subsequently, the Kutshers kept up a lifelong friendship with Chamberlain.

“We thought of Wilt as an extended member of our family,” Helen Kutsher tells Cherry in the book. “I used to kid him, ‘You’re like my fourth child. He always stayed in touch, and we’d talk during the year. He never really left us.”

Before Eddie Gottlieb—who got Chamberlain that job summer job at Kutsher’s—owned the Philadelphia Warriors, he founded the pre-NBA Philadelphia SPHAS, a team whose jerseys featured the Hebrew letters (samach, pey, hey, aleph) from which its name was derived. The SPHAS won seven American League championships from 1934 to 1945, and the modern NBA was founded in 1946. Rich Westcott, author of “The Mogul: Eddie Gottlieb: Philadelphia Sports Legend and Pro Basketball Pioneer,” says Gottlieb played a key role in Chamberlain’s rise to NBA stardom.

“Ironically, Gotty (Gottlieb’s nickname) could look out the windows of his house on Salford Street, and in the distance he could see Overbrook High School a few miles away,” Westcott tells “How’s that for a start in the relationship between the two? Over the years, Gottlieb went to watch Wilt play as a schoolboy. He earned Wilt’s admiration as one of the driving forces behind the integration of professional basketball.”

Westcott explained that Gottlieb “became the person who devised and championed a new element in the NBA draft, which gave teams the territorial rights to high school players from their areas.” That element would eventually land Chamberlain with the Philadelphia Warriors.

“Instead of having to wait for a player to complete college, the short-lived rule allowed players such as Wilt to be drafted by their local team. Hence, when the time came, Wilt became a Warrior, and that in itself played a major role in Chamberlain’s long path to the Hall of Fame,” Westcott says.

According to Westcott, Gottlieb had talked Chamberlain out of playing another year with the Harlem Globetrotters, an exhibition team Wilt played with during the 1958-59 season after he left the University of Kansas early and was not yet eligible for the NBA. Gottlieb offered Chamberlain a salary he couldn’t refuse—$30,000, the highest in the NBA at the time.

Chamberlain’s signing with the Warriors cemented his bond with Gottlieb. They remained close friends even after Gottlieb sold the Warriors. Years later, when Chamberlain was playing for the Los Angeles Lakers, he gave Gottlieb the ball with which he had scored his 20,000th career point, according to Cherry’s book.

“All of these situations over the years, and the fact that Gotty played a major role in the development of Wilt’s career, explains why they had such a close relationship,” Westcott tells “Gotty was in many ways Wilt’s mentor and Wilt had a tremendous respect for him and the role he played in his career.”

Another Jewish role model for Chamberlain was Ike Richman, who signed Chamberlain to his first contract with the Warriors as the team’s attorney and was later Chamberlain’s personal lawyer.

After the Warriors moved from Philadelphia to San Francisco, Richman and Irv Kosloff bought the Syracuse Nationals franchise and moved it to Philadelphia, renaming it the 76ers. Cherry says Richman was Chamberlain’s most trusted business adviser, the confidant who helped him with his personal problems, and a father figure. When Richman died in December 1965, Chamberlain—who was traded to the 76ers that year and would play with the team until 1968—said, “I owe that man all I have today.”

By the end of his career with the Philadelphia/San Francisco Warriors, the Philadelphia 76ers, and the Los Angeles Lakers, Chamberlain amassed numerous NBA records in scoring, rebounding, and durability. He won two NBA championships, earned four Most Valuable Player awards, and was selected to 13 All-Star Games.

Yet a series of emails Cherry says he recently received, all pointing to a particular video of Chamberlain that surfaced on the Internet, indicate that fans also remember the basketball legend’s bellhop career.

“Ten people sent it to me,” Cherry says of the video. “It’s Wilt working as a bellhop at Kutsher’s. He’s handing suitcases to another bellhop on the second floor.”


  • To Blacks who fear or are “uncomfortsble” with close “public” relationships and friendships with Jews, this story should set things straight for many who read it.

    Now you know who you can trust,

    Jews are also a minority, y;know? We know what you know.

  • Morrie Amitay

    In 1954 I played against Chamberlan at Kutsher’s and worked as a waiter in the Catskills and at other Jewish resorts from my high school days (All Metropolitan Jewish High Schools all-star) through Columbia and two years at Harvard Law School. Being on the same court with Wilt was definitely a highlight of my basketball “career” !

Leave a Reply

Please note: comments may be published in the Algemeiner print edition. Comments written in all caps will be deleted.

Current day month ye@r *


  • Arts and Culture Beliefs and concepts What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David?

    What’s That Huge White Bridal Dress Floating Over the Tower of David? –  “What’s that huge white bridal dress floating over the Tower of David?” That’s what visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City asked last week. The wedding gown, created by leading Israeli artist Motti Mizrachi, is part of the 2nd Jerusalem Biennale for Contemporary Jewish Art, an event that blew into town as the Sukkot holiday got underway. Mizrachi, who lives and works in Tel Aviv, created the dress that floats majestically over the Tower of David, the main exhibition site […]

    Read more →
  • Features Opinion The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    The Top 10 Places to Visit in Israel

    Israel is a holiday destination on many travelers’ bucket lists. No matter the style of holiday you are after, Israel has the answer. Whether you prefer to relax by the beach, hike up mountains in the desert, visit religious and historical sites, eat your way through the country or just enjoy some retail therapy, your journey through Israel will be one to remember. While there are obviously so many things to see and do, here is a list of 10 of […]

    Read more →
  • Pioneers/Philanthropists US & Canada Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO

    Jewish American Fashion Mogul Ralph Lauren to Step Down as CEO – Jewish American fashion mogul Ralph Lauren announced his plan to step down as chief executive officer of the renowned fashion brand. The head of Gap Inc’s Old Navy brand will take over the position. The 75-year-old Lauren, who founded Ralph Lauren Corp. in 1967, will continue to serve as executive chairman and will continue leading the fashion house’s design team, according to a statement by the company. After the announcement, Ralph Lauren shares rose 3.79 percent while Gap shares […]

    Read more →
  • Featured Sports US & Canada Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish Boxer Dustin ‘White Tiger’ Fleischer Scores Fourth Knockout Victory

    Jewish boxer Dustin Fleischer, who said his quest is to become the first world champion descended from a Holocaust survivor, stayed unbeaten with a first-round knockout. Fleischer, nicknamed “The White Tiger,” moved to 4-0 with the defeat of Ira Frank on Saturday night in Beach Haven, New Jersey, near his home, he reported after the fight on his Facebook page. The 26-year-old welterweight has won all his bouts by knockout. Read full story at JTA.

    Read more →
  • Featured Israel Pioneers/Philanthropists Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Meet Israel’s Santa Claus, the Trustee Tasked With Handing Out Leona Helmsley’s Billions (INTERVIEW)

    Renowned New York attorney Sandor (Sandy) Frankel, one of four trustees of the Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, was in Israel earlier this month to look at additional philanthropic options and to observe the progress of those endeavors already funded – to the tune of multi-millions. Frankel, who recently joined the prestigious Park Avenue law firm Otterbourg P.C., met with Israeli politicians and other bigwigs to get a sense from them about which projects in the country […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Food Spirituality/Tradition ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah

    ‘Pastry Secrets’ Arrive Just in Time for Rosh Hashanah – Babka. Strudel. Stollen. Danish pastry. Not to mention Gugelhopf and Charlotte. The names set the mouth to watering and conjure up lovingly concocted pastries that feed the body and comfort the soul. If you didn’t have a grandmother who baked these delicacies, you wish that you had. George Greenstein was never a grandmother, but his life as a baker provided his children and grandchildren with memories infused with the smell of fresh baked bread and rugelach. His daughters, Julia […]

    Read more →
  • Book Reviews Spirituality/Tradition Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’

    Fusing Israeli and Holocaust History, Novel Offers a ‘Middle Eastern Western’ – There is a game that all of us have played at some time in our lives. We ask ourselves: What would my life be like if I had gone to this school instead of that one, or if I had married this girl instead of that one? In their newly published book The Ambassador, authors Yehuda Avner and Matt Rees play that game with modern Jewish history. Avner — who died earlier this year, and was a speechwriter, secretary and adviser to […]

    Read more →
  • Israel Lifestyle A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A Toulouse Fashion Student Finds Style and Harmony in the Holy Land

    A unique group of young fashion bloggers and designers recently visited Israel to learn more about the country’s fashion industry and diverse culture. Hailing from the Philippines, Korea, Kenya, Japan, Brazil, Spain, France, Germany, Russia, and the U.K., the 10 participants toured the country and met with top Israeli fashion designers throughout last week. “It was an amazing experience,” said Meissene Maghni from Toulouse, France — one of the participants of the program. “I’m Muslim and I really wanted to see Israel […]

    Read more →