It's Saturday evening at the
Broadwood Hotel and well over a thousand Philadelphians have flocked to
the grand ballroom. Young and old, they pair off and swing to the
sounds of big band brass. And just as the couples rediscover their
rhythm and settle into a groove, the music disappears. On cue, the
dancers shuffle to the edges of the room. As they do, ten men in
sleeveless athletic uniforms retake center stage.
The hardwood floor
transforms from a dancing area to a basketball court. The tap of shoes
is replaced by the squeak of sneakers. Dribbling with two hands, Harry
Litwack narrowly avoids a body check aimed to send him into the steel
mesh that encloses the court. Heeding the barks of team organizer and
coach Eddie Gottlieb on the sideline, Litwack looks left and passes the
ball to a teammate in blue and white plaid gym shorts. Moe Goldman
receives the pass and, with his two feet planted on the ground, pushes
the ball up and into the hoop.
As he does after every
basket, the referee brings the ball back to midcourt for a tip-off.
Meanwhile, the team that scored - the one whose uniforms have the
Hebrew letters samach, pey, hey and aleph sewn across the chest -
celebrates as the crowd whoops and cheers.
The year is 1933. Hitler
had come to power in Germany just months earlier and anti-Semitism is
on the rise in America. Broadwood's sellout crowd, though, has
something else on its collective mind as it embraces a hometown
spectacle: the Philadelphia SPHAs, the greatest professional basketball
team in the world.
A team of Jews.
Peach farmers in Springfield, Massachusetts may have
invented basketball, but immigrants resigned to inner-city ghettos
promptly established their dominance over the game. For America's
multiethnic lower class at the turn of the twentieth century, it made
sense that basketball was the recreation of choice.
In addition to the multitude of peach baskets fastened to
street poles, courts were made readily available by high schools,
churches and athletic clubs. With the establishment of collegiate and
amateur leagues, basketball became a means to overcome prejudices and
poverty, and to obtain scholarships and money.
The Jews of South Philadelphia excelled in basketball. Young
Jewish men stocked the squads on both sides of the local high-school
rivalry between Southern and Central. From 1914 to 1916, Southern
notched three consecutive city championships thanks to a young Eddie
Gottlieb and two teammates, Hughie Black and Harry Passon.
Graduation marked the end of an era, but the Southern trio
remained set on playing their beloved sport in some capacity. Barely
earning enough income to pay for their daily essentials, they sought
sponsorship and uniforms through the Young Men's Hebrew Association
The amateur club began playing local exhibitions in 1918.
Each player earned five dollars per game, roughly equivalent to $80 in
2008 - a far cry from today's multi-million dollar contracts but a
substantial sum for an inner-city immigrant or son of immigrants.
Five dollars a night may not have been enough to make a
living, but the players couldn't have cared less. Yes, the extra cash
was nice, but above all else basketball was fun. Gottlieb, Black,
Passon and company all had full-time jobs and expectations of becoming
lawyers or doctors. Back then, no one dreamed of making a career of
* * *
By 1921 the uniforms were worn out. Unable to receive
additional funding from the penny-pressed YMHA, the club realigned
itself with the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (SPHA). With the
help of Passon's recently opened sporting goods store, the team
produced new jerseys.
While the design evolved over the years, certain features
always stood out. The gym shorts generally touted a distinctive plaid
pattern of light blue and white. The tank tops always had a Magen David
while the road uniforms had "Hebrews" stitched across the back - just
in case fans were slow to pick up on the Jewish theme. On the front,
spelled out in either Roman or Hebrew letters, was the team sponsor's
With no home court or league of their own, the barnstorming
SPHAs endured their own Diaspora. They played more than eighty
exhibitions a year in distant cities and towns throughout the East and
Midwest. They challenged any willing competitor, from local church and
business clubs to other semipro teams.
No matter where the SPHAs played, two things inevitably
occurred: 1) Anti-Semites packed contest venues to witness their
hometown teams obliterate the Jews. 2) More often than not, the
anti-Semites went home disappointed.
For those who required an explanation for the Jews'
impressive abilities, New York Daily News sportswriter Paul Gallico
tried to help, writing: "The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals
to the Hebrew with his Oriental background is that the game places a
premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging
and general smart aleckness."
Others contributed such ideas as better balance, quicker
feet, and superior vision - the latter especially ironic considering
the stereotype about Jewish men requiring eyeglasses for their myopia.
As sports pundits busied themselves concocting theories
based on race, the SPHAs were busy tearing up the courts. Employing
quick passes and mental prowess, as opposed to brute strength and
athleticism, the Jewish boys from the South Philly ghetto tallied
victory after victory. By the fall of 1923, that success earned the
amateur club an invitation to join the Philadelphia League.
In their first two seasons of organized basketball, the
SPHAs notched back-to-back league championships. Riding this momentum,
the team transferred to the upstart Eastern League for the 1925-1926
season. When the league went out of business mid-season, however, the
SPHAs were once again forced to wander the land of exhibition games.
Little did they know that those contests would ultimately make them
Much had changed since the SPHAs' first game. Though no
longer officially affiliated with the Hebrew Association, the team
retained the moniker. Team founder Gottlieb, once a star player, had
suffered a severe hand injury and now limited himself to coaching. Most
significantly, the SPHAs had become a lucrative business. In one
instance, the SPHAs lured Jewish phenom Davey Banks from his home in
New York City for a whopping $50 a game - nearly $600 today.
Meanwhile, in light of the Eastern League's collapse,
Gottlieb organized a series of exhibitions against the nation's top
franchises: six games against American Basketball League opponents,
followed by two best-of-three series against the renowned New York
Original Celtics and the all-black New York Renaissance.
The six-week campaign was a huge success. Against ABL teams,
the SPHAs fell only once, to the league champion Cleveland Rosenblums.
In their series against the Celtics, the SPHAs dropped the first game,
but Banks sank a game-winning 30-foot shot with just fifteen seconds
remaining in Game 2 to even the series. In the decisive game 3, the
SPHAs garnered national notoriety, dominating the "unbeatable" Celtics
The Renaissance, or Rens, suffered a swifter defeat.
Basketball's best Jews outplayed the elite black team - 36-33 in
overtime and then 40-39. With the series sweep, the SPHAs established
themselves as one of basketball's premier teams.
Back in Philadelphia, the SPHAs were hometown heroes. "Every
Jewish boy was playing basketball," reminisced former SPHA Harry
Litwack. "And every one of those Jewish kids dreamed of playing for the
For the Jewish community, the SPHAs were a tremendous source
of pride, bucking stereotypes and succeeding in the face of adversity.
The games themselves transcended basketball.
Home games at the Broadwood Hotel were social events.
Religious parents usually discouraged their teenage daughters from
attending such functions, but SPHAs games were different. After all,
plenty of of upstanding young Jewish bachelors would be there. "A lot
of fans met their future wives and husbands at SPHAs games," remembered
Eddie Gottlieb years later.
In between the socializing and the cheering, fans perused
The SPHAs Sparks - a program that doubled as game guide and social
register, providing everything from team statistics to local marriage
and birth announcements. Each issue of Sparks had a lucky number, with
the winner taking home a suit (retail $19.95) from Sam Gerson's store
down the street.
* * *
Best of all, the SPHAs kept on winning. By the 1929-1930
season, the Eastern League was rejuvenated and the team reentered a
world of organized contests with a new generation of players - kids
like Litwack who were inspired by the original SPHAs. These
dreamers-turned-professionals set the tone early, winning the inaugural
league championship - and the next two as well.
Litwack and company suffered their first blemish in
1932-1933, falling in the finals. Regardless, the SPHAs were now bigger
than the Jewish community - they were the most popular sports franchise
in Philadelphia, more popular even than the city's two major-league
baseball teams, the Athletics and the Phillies.
Said Litwack: "We were the toast of the town. It just wasn't
South Philadelphia's team, it was the team for all Jewish people in
Philadelphia. We were the best around and we were from Philadelphia and
we were Jewish. It was an amazing combination."
Following their finals flop, the SPHAs joined the American
Basketball League (ABL), considered by many to be the first
professional basketball league. Still under the dogged leadership of
Gottlieb, the team continued to rack up championships - three in the
ABL's first four seasons.
After losing consecutive league championships in 1938 and
1939 for the first time in franchise history, the SPHAs started another
impressive run in the spring of 1940, winning four titles in six years.
The SPHAs' brilliance on the basketball court provided a
flicker of joy during the Jewish people's darkest hours. While Hitler
marked European Jews with a yellow star, the SPHAs openly wore the
Magen David without fear of persecution. While European Jews tried to
preserve their way of life in secret, these American athletes were free
to publicly display their religion as they dominated American
That's not to say the SPHAs didn't face adversity. At
Brooklyn's Prospect Hall, security guards confiscated guns at the door.
That failed to stop anti-Semites from finding weapons without
ammunition when the SPHAs played the Brooklyn Visitation: fans in the
upper balcony launched glass beer bottles at the Jewish players while a
woman in the front row would poke the visiting SPHA players with a pin
every time one came within arm's reach.
At a game in Jersey City, a bleacher-clearing brawl broke
out and Litwack's head was smashed with a beer bottle. He was rushed to
the hospital and police escorted the rest of the SPHAs out of the
building. The team reentered the arena when play was set to resume -
and won the game.
Racist taunts, biased officials, and hate-provoked fights
followed the SPHAs wherever they went. Throughout it all, the team not
only won, they maintained high spirits. And the SPHAs commanded a
substantial following of Jewish fans all along the East Coast who
packed arenas to watch their boys win.
* * *
Surprisingly, following a magnificent run of championships,
the SPHAs' fall from glory came fast. After topping the Baltimore
Bullets in the 1945 finals, the team failed to repeat as champions the
next season and in fact would never reach the finals again. By the
1948-1949 season, basketball's greatest team for almost two decades
found itself in last place.
The demise of the SPHAs can be attributed to two factors.
First, by the late 1940s, Jews had begun to move from city to suburb.
And as suburban Jews indulged in other forms of recreation, blacks from
dying farms in the South migrated to cities like Philadelphia and
became the new kings of the hardwood.
Second, professional basketball experienced a significant
shift of power when, in the fall of 1946, a group of owners founded the
Basketball Association of America (BAA) - the league that, three years
later, became the National Basketball Association we all know today.
Nearly three decades after first playing for the YMHA,
Gottlieb transferred the SPHAs' top talent to his new BAA enterprise,
the Philadelphia Warriors. The ABL was relegated to minor league
status, continuing to function through 1953 - but the SPHAs didn't even
last that long.
It's widely believed that before the 1950 season Gottlieb
sold the franchise to his player-coach, Red Klotz, and that in 1952 the
team became the Washington Generals - the famous full-time traveling
partners and foils of the Harlem Globetrotters. While there is some
poetic irony to this scenario - the greatest team in basketball
devolving into the greatest losers in the history of sports - this
never actually happened.
From his home on the Jersey Shore, Klotz cleared up the
story: After the 1949 season, the SPHAs toured with the Globetrotters
for a short time, with a good deal of success. Impressed by the
opposition's performance, Harlem owner Abe Saperstein asked Klotz to
start his own squad to travel with the Globetrotters on a full-time
basis. Meanwhile, Gottlieb's SPHAs dropped out of the ABL without pomp
or circumstance, never to play organized basketball again.
* * *
Reminders of the SPHAs dynasty are hard to come by. The
grand ballroom and the Broadwood Hotel are gone. Philly basketball
uniforms no longer have Hebrew letters or plaid patterning. All of the
original SPHAs have passed away, with the most famous team members
leaving their legacies in other ways. Gottlieb is often credited with
saving the NBA; Passon's sporting goods shop still exists in North
Philadelphia; and Litwack served as head coach of Temple University for
more than twenty years.
Yet the SPHAs are far from wholly forgotten. Visit the
Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield and look into the glass display
case in front of the main exhibit. There you'll find a black-and-white
team picture - basketball's first dynasty, the Philadelphia SPHAs.