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 JNS.org. “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 JNS.org. “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 JNS.org. “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.”

2 Comments

  • 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.


Current day month ye@r *

More...

  • Arts and Culture US & Canada ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    ‘Death of Klinghoffer’ Actress Compares Met Opera to ‘Schindler’s List’

    An actress starring in the controversial Met Opera The Death of Klinghoffer defended the show on Tuesday by comparing it to the 1993 Holocaust film Schindler’s List, New York Post reported. “To me, this was like [the movie] Schindler’s List. We make art so people won’t forget,’’ said the actress, who plays a captured passenger in the show and asked not to be identified. The Met Opera focuses on the infamous murder of Lower East Side Jewish resident Leon Klinghoffer, 69. The wheelchair-bound father of [...]

    Read more →
  • Analysis Arts and Culture Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    Beyond ‘Klinghoffer’: Opera’s Composer, Librettist Have Broader Jewish Problem

    JNS.org – One of the most controversial operas in recent memory, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” debuted Oct. 20 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera. The Met has scheduled seven more performances through November. The first staging did not occur without protest, as about 400 demonstrators—including Jewish communal and nationally recognized leaders—came to Lincoln Center to denounce the anti-Jewish and anti-Israel opera. “Klinghoffer,” the creation of composer John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman, premiered in 1991—with few additional stagings. The opera is based [...]

    Read more →
  • Arts and Culture US & Canada Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli Actress Gal Gadot in Talks to Star in Ben-Hur Remake

    Israeli actress Gal Gadot is in negotiations to take on the female lead role in the remake of the 1959 classic Ben-Hur, according to The Hollywood Reporter. If the deal is finalized Gadot will play Esther, a slave and Ben-Hur’s love interest. Actor Jack Huston will star as the Jewish prince who is betrayed into slavery by his childhood friend Messala, played by Toby Kebbell. Ben-Hur fights for his freedom and vengeance with the help of Morgan Freeman’s character, who trains Ben-Hur how to win at chariot-racing. [...]

    Read more →
  • Jewish Identity Sports Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    Young Israelis Try to Crowd-Fund Their Way to Major League Baseball Playoffs

    JNS.org – Baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie are the American dream. So why do two young men who have built their lives in Israel have a GoFundMe crowd-funding webpage with the urgent message that they need $3,000 to travel to the U.S. to watch the Kansas City Royals and Baltimore Orioles square off for Major League Baseball’s (MLB) American League championship? Brothers Naftali and Yoni Schwartz, 27 and 25, respectively, are Kansas City natives. Even though they made aliyah with their [...]

    Read more →
  • Blogs Sports Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Race Cars Speed Through Jerusalem in Amazing Exhibition

    Some 3,000 years ago, King David probably never imagined cars racing at 240 kilometers per hour (150 miles per hour) through the ancient capital of the Jewish people. But on Monday and Tuesday, October 6-7, thousands of Israelis lined the streets to watch Porsche, Audi, and Ferrari race cars fly through the capital against the backdrop of the Tower of David, the Old City Walls, and other city landmarks. The second annual non-competitive Jerusalem Formula One Road Show had been [...]

    Read more →
  • Israel Sports NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    NBA Superstar LeBron James Says He Wants to Visit Israel

    Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James expressed interest in visiting Israel someday, local news site Cleveland.com reported on Sunday. Speaking to Israeli reporters before the Cleveland Cavaliers’ preseason debut against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the NBA star said he had never visited the Jewish state but “I want to look forward to going there if I get an opportunity to.” When asked by an Israeli reporter if there was “any chance that LeBron James and Cleveland comes to Tel Aviv,” the athlete said [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    Florida Rabbi Dominates Former Basketball Star Congressman in Hoops Showdown (VIDEO)

    A Florida-based Chabad rabbi put former basketball star, U.S. Congressman Curt Clawson to shame on the court when the two faced off one-on-one recently. A YouTube video, posted online on Tuesday, shows Rabbi Fishel Zaklos of Chabad of Naples shooting hoops with the Florida politician, who played basketball in high school and at Purdue University in Indiana. The game took place in the parking lot of the Chabad Jewish center run by Zaklos. During the 1-minute clip, Zaklos scores two impressive [...]

    Read more →
  • Sports US & Canada David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers Rout Maccabi Tel Aviv, 107-80

    JNS.org – Less than five months after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to its sixth European basketball title, David Blatt, now the head coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, routed his former team in an exhibition game on Sunday, with the Cavaliers dominating Maccabi 107-80 at the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland. The 20,562 fans in attendance witnessed Lebron James’s first appearance in a Cavaliers uniform since he left the club in free agency for the Miami Heat four years ago. [...]

    Read more →



Sign up now to receive our regular news briefs.