- The SPHAS: The Life and Ttimes of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team
Doug Stark’s book on the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association squad (SPHAS) fills a gap in both professional basketball and Jewish history, in addition to providing a lot of useful insights on Philadelphia during the period from 1920 to 1960. The SPHAS were one of the top professional basketball teams in the 1930s and went on tours throughout the East and Midwest, while also playing championship ball in the American Basketball League (ABL). The ABL, which was the successor to the truly national league of the same name that operated from 1925 to 1931, was reborn in 1933 as a regional league, mostly within 100 miles of Philadelphia, although the parameters changed in some years as franchises shifted. The SPHAS played in the league from 1933 until 1949, winning seven championships in twelve years and contending in the others. In a period when no professional league was national and dominant, the SPHAs played and defeated all comers. In the 1940s the National Basketball League (NBL) was probably the top league and won seven of the ten titles of the World Tournament of Pro Basketball from 1939 to 1948. The SPHAS only chose to play in one of those, but most of the other top professional teams did.
The SPHAS players were initially drawn almost exclusively from the Philadelphia region and all were Jewish, but there were non-Jews who played on the team at times. Jewish players were among the top players in the East so having a team of Jews was based more on quality players than ethnicity. Nevertheless, the Jewish community adopted the SPHAS shortly after their inception in the late 1910s, and from the mid 1920s the SPHAS were an institution in the Philadelphia Jewish community, with their games a social as well as athletic event, mostly at their home court, the Broadwood Hotel. In the latter years of the team, more of the players were drawn from the New York City area. The team owner, Eddie Gottlieb, sought the best players in the East and usually they were from the Philadelphia or New York regions.
Gottlieb was the co-founder of the team, along with Herman (Chicky) Passon and Edwin (Hughie) Black. He played a bit but was more the organizer, coach, and manager. Gottlieb had the mind of a computer, according to one former SPHA, and that was validated by the fact that, as owner of the Philadelphia Warriors of the NBA he compiled the NBA schedule by hand every year from 1949 until the late 1970s. He died in 1979.
Stark mixes accounts from the various former players with those of fans of the team who embraced them for their play and their social events. Each home game included dancing after the game on the same floor as the games and, for a time, one of the players (Gil Fitch) was the leader of the dance band. He later left the team and went into music full time. Players attended the dances, and many romances within the Jewish community were begun through the social gatherings of the SPHAS.
The chapters of the book generally focus on a season as well as a player or two with the player story paralleling the seasonal events. This is nicely done, although it does make for [End Page 197] some repetition with each chapter. The player insights on the nature of basketball, the opponents, the equipment, the fans, and the community provide a focused view into ethnic urban life in the period between the wars and the immediate years afterwards.
One of the quirks of the ABL was having three fifteen-minute periods, rather than two twenty-minute halves, which altered, somewhat, the way ABL teams played when they had to use the more predominant rules. Stark also notes, or rather the players do, that teams almost never practiced; most of them had other real jobs and simply could not find...