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'SCHEMING, FLASHY TRICKINESS' OF BASKETBALL'S MEDIA
DARLINGS, THE PHILADELPHIA 'HEBREWS' ERRSIXERS
By Jon Entine
The Philadelphia basketball team had a pint-sized but flashy star shooter.
Its old school coach was more teacher than tough disciplinarian. References
to the Biblical David abounded in the media.
Sounds like the Philadelphia 76ers, who surprised everyone with their heart
and heady play throughout their playoff run, before succumbing to their own
injuries and an acute Shaq attack.
Nope. It's the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association
SPHAs (pronounced 'spas'), which dominated basketball
in the 1920s and 30s.
The flashy shooter was set-shot expert Inky Lautman and the savvy coach is
Eddie Gottlieb, who was also the owner of one of the most successful team in
basketball history. And the Biblical David was the six-pointed star on the
Today, the most prominent Jewish characteristic of
the current Sixer team is coach Larry Brown, who starred
on the U.S. gold-medal team at the Maccabiah Games
in Israel before launching his pro career. (Team President
Brian Roberts is also Jewish) 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. Once the bad
boy rap star of basketball, Allen Iverson has always been praised, even by
his detractors, for his incredible athletic ability and lightning speed. But
Iverson has never gotten credit for his basketball smarts. For all his
athleticism, the wounded warrior and his Sixer teammates are winning with
The newest showmen of modern basketball, Iverson, Kobe Bryant, and Vince
Carter, are praised for their "athleticism" and "natural talents." But is
that a compliment or an unwitting devaluation of their hard-earned
achievements? After all, anyone who has followed their remarkable careers
has witnessed a tremendous evolution in the quality and selflessness, not
just the style, of their games.
But such stereotypes reflect a long tradition that
goes back more than seven decades, when the game emerged
from the ghettos of Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.
Sportswriters then used to wax about the gaudy skills
of "natural athletes." Sounds familiar, except the
stars had names like Dutch Garfinkel and Doc Lou Sugerman,
and the top teams were the Philadelphia 'Hebrews',
as they were nicknamed, 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
and one of the premier sports writers of the 1930s,
'is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming
mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general
smart aleckness.' Writers opined that Jews had an
advantage in basketball because short men have better
balance and more foot speed. They were also thought
to have sharper eyes, which of course cut against
the stereotype that Jewish men were myopic and had
to wear glasses, but who said stereotypes had to be
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," notes 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
Although New York turned out more Jewish stars in pure numbers, the SPHAs
were basketball¹s 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 surpassed both of
Philadelphia's baseball teams, the Athletics and the Phillies, in
"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. Dabrow, who eventually took a job coaching Jewish
phenoms at South Philly High, died in 1996. "It was where the young Jewish
boy would never have been able to go to college if it wasn't for the amount
of basketball playing and for the scholarship."
The first intercollegiate game in the East, a 6-4 shellacking of Temple by
Haverford College, took place in March 1894, at the Temple gymnasium.
Basketball had a notorious reputation back then. The rules provided for few
fouls, making the game a barely controlled melee. In the cases where the
basket had a backboard, it was to keep the spectators from interfering with
the ball. There was no out-of-bounds on many courts, which were two-thirds
the size of a standard basketball court today and often ringed with steel
mesh. It was common practice to drive an opponent into the fence, and
pileups were as frequent as at hockey games today. 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. In Philadelphia, the two best high school squads,
Southern and rival Central, were stocked with first-generation Jews.
Gottlieb and future SPHAs Harry "Chicky" Passon, Edwin "Hughie" Black,
Mockie Bunnin, and Charlie Newman led Southern to city titles in 1914, 1915
and 1916. These Jews introduced a different style of play.
"It was a quick-passing running game, as opposed to
the bullying and fighting way which was popular other
places," explained Litwack. 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 a samach, pey, hey, and alephHebrew letters
spelling 'SHPAs'and the Magen David, a Jewish star,
as team symbols.
By the end of the 1921 season, the SPHA uniforms had
become too ragged to wear, but the YMHA couldn't come
up with the money for new ones. Gottlieb, Black and
Passon started a local sporting goods store, Passon'sand
which also paid for uniforms. With that crisis resolved,
the SPHAs ventured out into the world of traveling
semipro ball, retaining their team name and Jewish
identity. Playing 80 or more games a year and with
no home court to call their own, they were sometimes
called 'The Wandering Jews.'
In the early days, the players earned $5 a game eachbig
bucks for city kids. Stars like Nat Holman and the
'Heavenly Twins' from Brooklyn, Marty Friedman and
Barney Sedransky, commanded $200 a month. Salaries
escalated as the game's popularity soared, with Sedran
(he shortened his name, as did many of that era, as
Jews melted into the American mainstream), the 5'4"
scoring machine and playmaker, known as the 'brainiest'
player in the game, once earning $12,000 in a single
The SPHAs' success attracted up and coming stars from
Jewish ghettos along the East coast, including New
York favorites 'Shikey' Gotthoffer, Red Wolfe of St.
John's and Moe Goldman of CCNY. Even when the college
basketball champion St. John¹s team, dubbed the Wonder
Five (Four Jews started on the 1929 team) after amassing
a 70-4 record in three seasons, moved intact into
the American Basketball League as the New York Jewels,
it was the SPHAs who dominated.
With the emergence of National Socialism in Germany and an escalation of
anti-Semitism in the U.S., basketball was sometimes a brutal experience. The
Jewish players faced incessant racial slurs and biased officials in the
small towns in which they played.
"The toughest place was Prospect Hall, the home of the Brooklyn Visitation,"
said Gottlieb. "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." Litwack
recalled having to be careful just going down the court: "There was a lady
in the front row with hat pins. She used to jab you when you went by."
Tuesday night doubleheaders at the YMHA at Broad and Pine streets attracted
crowds of 1,500 or more to watch Lautman, Passon, lady-killer Kaselman and
Gottlieb display their skills. At the height of their success, the SPHAs
were one of the best teams in the country, sweeping their leagues games and
challenging teams in other cities. By this time, the game had spread
westward to Cleveland, home of the tough Rosenblums founded by a clothing
store magnate, 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. Anthony¹s, which represented the mixed
Italian and Jewish Brooklyn neighborhood of Greenpoint, and the New York
Renaissance, the premier Negro team.
The black players were not allowed to play in the all-white semi-pro leagues
that started up and failed numerous times during this era. The encounters
between the "Yids" and the "Niggers" were legendary. The Rens were flashy by
the standards of the 1920s, though they would seem merely methodical today.
Thousands of fans of both teams jammed the temporary seats set up in the
marvelous Ballroom at Philadelphia's Broadwood Hotel (for at least one
season, team member Gil Fitch also doubled as the bandleader for the dances
that followed the games), where tickets went for a lofty 65 cents (35 cents
"Usually when the Renaissance would have you licked, the last three, four
minutes of the game, they'd start passing the ball around, and the crowd
would to crazy," recalled Gottlieb. According to William "Pop" Gates, the
star of the Renaissance, who 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, now nicknamed
'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 next year, the Syracuse Nats relocated
to Philly, renamed as the Sixers.
The remnants of the Jewish basketball tradition now rest on the unlikely
shoulders of Larry Brown and Allen Iverson, the cerebral coach and hip-hop
warrior. Cast as David in these playoffs, these resilient Sixers are looking
to next season to take their revenge on Goliath.
Jon Entine (http://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], which
was recently released in paperback, and from which
this article is adapted.
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