The Life and Times of Basketball's Greatest Jewish Team
Publication Year: 2011
Founded in 1918, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association's basketball team, known as the SPHAS, was a top squad in the American Basketball League-capturing seven championships in thirteen seasons-until it disbanded in 1959. In The SPHAS, the first book to chronicle the history of this team and its numerous achievements, Douglas Stark uses rare and noteworthy images of players and memorabilia as well as interviews and anecdotes to recall how players like Inky Lautman, Cy Kaselman, and Shikey Gotthoffer fought racial stereotypes of weakness and inferiority while spreading the game's popularity. Team owner Eddie Gottlieb and Temple University coach Harry Litwack, among others profiled here, began their remarkable careers with the SPHAS.
Stark explores the significance of basketball to the Jewish community during the game's early years, when Jewish players dominated the sport and a distinct American Jewish identity was on the rise. At a time when basketball teams were split along ethnic lines, the SPHAS represented the Philadelphia Jewish community. The SPHAS is an inspiring and heartfelt tale of the team on and off the court.
Published by: Temple University Press
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It used to be a joke, the snide answer to one of those “Thinnest Books in the World” riddles, a wisecrack so common it turned up in the 1980 movie farce Airplane! Flight attendant: Would you like something to read? Passenger: Do you have anything light? Flight attendant: How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends”? Me? I never thought it was funny. Because my father was a genuine...
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On October 17, 1959, the Philadelphia SPHAS played a game against the Harlem Globetrotters. The contest was held at Madison Square Garden, and 17,932 basketball fans saw two games that early autumn evening. The doubleheader featured the Harlem Globetrotters versus the Philadelphia SPHAS, and the College All-Stars against...
1. On the Road
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On Sunday night, January 1, 1939, an estimated 13 million Americans around the country, including in the greater Detroit area, turned on their radios to listen to the popular weekly address of Father Charles Coughlin. Father Coughlin, the country’s most well-known radio priest, oversaw the Shrine of the Little Flower in Royal Oak, Michigan...
2. A Jewish Game
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Much like the game of basketball, the city of Philadelphia was the result of one man’s vision. William Penn was granted a charter from the King of England in 1681 for what eventually became the Pennsylvania colony. Twenty years later, Penn himself issued a charter that established Philadelphia as a city. Quickly, Philadelphia became important for trading and government. The city improved and grew rapidly in the...
3. A New League, a New Team
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On October 30, 1933, a meeting occurred at 120 Wall Street in New York City. It marked the first league meeting for the reconstituted ABL. After two years during which all league operations had ceased due to the Great Depression that engulfed the nation, John J. O’Brien reorganized the league and made it more regional as opposed to national in scope. Eddie Gottlieb, representing the Philadelphia SPHAS...
4. Prospect Hall and the Vissies
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By the mid-1930s, the Great Depression had swallowed up the country hard and the economic crisis threatened the very future of America. Millions of Americans were without jobs and the prospects for employment of any sort were bleak at best. With the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe came an increase in anti-Jewish sentiment in America. The terrible economic situation and isolationist mentality of the country led to a rise...
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In the 1920s, Hank Greenberg and Joel (Shikey) Gotthoffer were childhood friends growing up just blocks from one another in the Bronx, New York. Both enjoyed sports and could often be found playing baseball, basketball, and other sports of the day with the neighborhood kids. When it came time for high school, they enrolled locally at James Monroe High School and continued their athletic pursuits. Basketball was popular, and each joined the...
6. Howard the Red
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Late in the afternoon of Wednesday November 4, 1936, Red Rosan, Cy Kaselman, Inky Lautman, and Gil Fitch piled into Eddie Gottlieb’s car for the drive from Philadelphia to Kingston, New York. Meeting them there would be Shikey Gotthoffer, Moe Goldman, and Red Wolfe, who had traveled together from New York City. Another basketball season was set to commence, and the...
7. Saturday Night SPHAS Habit
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Growing up in South Philadelphia in the 1930s, Ed Lerner had a ritual every Saturday night during the winter months. After dinner with his family, Lerner took either the bus or subway to the corner of Broad and Wood Streets. When he arrived—always by himself—he paid his 40 cents and walked up the stairs to the balcony of the Broadwood...
8. The Darlings of Philadelphia
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On November 28, 1939, with the Thanksgiving holiday past and the 1939–1940 basketball season just underway, newspapers and radios across the country reported that James Naismith, the game’s founder, had died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 78 years old. The New York Times, in its obituary, noted that more than 20 million people were now playing the game worldwide. “The fast, sprightly, colorful basketball of...
9. Rosenberg to the Rescue
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On December 29, 1940, just a few days before the New Year, the Philadelphia SPHAS headed out for a brief four-city tour of Ohio. Gottlieb had scheduled games in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton, and Columbus. It was a short visit. Only four games were scheduled, including two on January 1 in Dayton and Columbus. The SPHAS had played in Ohio many times before, and the trip at the end of the year was...
10. Basketball and War
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In the early morning hours of December 7, 1941, while the country slept, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, jolting America out of its isolationist mentality. The U.S. Navy, unprepared for an attack, suffered tremendous losses, as the Japanese, with an armada of sixty ships, crossed the Pacific Ocean undetected, launching a surprise attack. More than 300 Japanese planes shattered a quiet Sunday morning on Oahu and firebombed...
11. The Influx of New York Players
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World War II fundamentally altered basketball in America. The 1930s witnessed a game that was growing nationally in popularity, where different parts of the country were following the exploits of a team or certain star players thousands of miles away. College doubleheaders at Madison Square Garden and other arenas showcased the...
12. Losing Home Court
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On August 15, 1945, Philadelphians awoke and grabbed a copy of the Philadelphia Inquirer. The banner headline in six-inch capital letters read “PEACE.” For the first time since Pearl Harbor, the United States was no longer at war. President Harry Truman, in office less than five months, dropped two atomic bombs on Japan on August 6 and 9...
13. The End of the Line
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On June 6, 1946, some two months after the Bullets defeated the SPHAS for the ABL championship, a group of hockey owners gathered at the Hotel Commodore in New York City to discuss the formation of a new professional basketball league. Hockey, both the National Hockey League and its minor league counterpart, the American Hockey League, enjoyed great success in large eastern...
14. Playing It Straight
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Eddie Gottlieb and Abe Saperstein became fast friends. Both were short, heavy-set, Jewish men. They were born promoters who loved to make a deal. And they made many deals in their lifetime. In the mid-1920s, each was getting his start in the world of sports. Saperstein assumed control of the Savoy Big Five of Chicago and renamed them the Harlem Globetrotters...
Epilogue: Memories Live On
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On a warm Saturday in the summer of 2007, I drove to Philadelphia to meet with Harry Boonin, a retired lawyer who devotes much of his spare time to Philadelphia Jewish history. Harry offers walking tours of the Jewish neighborhood, and he had agreed to show me South Philadelphia. Armed with a list of places affiliated with the SPHAS...
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My interest in the Philadelphia SPHAS began when I worked as the archivist at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. I spent much of my time researching and organizing the collection, and in the process I became aware of this team and my curiosity was piqued. As someone who is interested in Jews and sports, I found that not...
Appendix A: Game-by-Game American Basketball League Standings for the SPHAS
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Appendix B: Year-by-Year Standings for the SPHAS
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Appendix C: SPHAS VERSUS OTHER PHILADELPHIA PROFESSIONAL TEAMS
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Appendix D: Box Scores
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Appendix E: All-Time SPHAS Roster
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Publication Year: 2011