Basketball (Professional)


Professional basketball has a long history in the Philadelphia region, from the first professional league, formed in 1898, to the National Basketball Association (NBA). The city produced memorable teams, including the Warriors and 76ers, and Hall of Fame players such as Wilt Chamberlain (1936-99) and Dawn Staley (b. 1970). Philadelphia teams and players from the Philadelphia region contributed to the success of professional basketball in the region and beyond. 

Basketball dates to 1891, when James Naismith (1861-1939) invented the game at the YMCA in Springfield, Mass., as an indoor activity for the winter months. The sport incorporated elements of rugby, lacrosse, and soccer: passing, the jump ball, shooting toward a goal, and the shape and size of the ball. Naismith nailed two peach baskets to the lower rail of the balcony in the gymnasium and drafted rules for the new game. Basketball quickly became a popular winter sport, and by the end of the decade professional leagues formed in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. 

Professional basketball in Philadelphia began in August 1898, when the sports editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, Horace Fogel (1861-1928), organized the National Basketball League with three teams from the Philadelphia and three from South Jersey. In this era, a twelve-foot chain link cage ringed the court to separate players from fans, but the cage mainly led to hockey-style body checks and fans sticking pins and lit cigars into the players’ flesh. (Rope replaced the iron cages in the 1920s.) Players from the Philadelphia region competed on teams that included the Clover Wheelmen (also known as the Pennsylvania Bicycle Club), Germantown Nationals, and Hancock Athletic Association, but none of the Philadelphia-based teams won a title before the National Basketball League folded in January 1904.  

Early Game Venues 

During the early years, games took place in local armories and fraternal halls, and most players gained experience with the game by playing for fraternal organizations or athletic clubs. Squads representing fraternal organizations such as the Elks and Moose also played in professional leagues of the early twentieth century: the Philadelphia Basketball League (1902-09, revived 1923-28), the Eastern Basketball League (1909-17 and 1919-20, revived 1929-36), and the American Basketball League (1918-19, revived 1926-28 and 1933-49).   

Black and white photograph depicting Eddie Gottlieb from chest up. He is leaning his head in his hand.
Eddie Gottlieb, owner of the Philadelphia Warriors, watches as his team plays in this photograph from 1958. (Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries)

During the first half of the twentieth century, the Philadelphia SPHAS—named for the team’s original owner, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association—reigned as the region’s top team. Owner Eddie Gottlieb (1898-1979) founded the team with sporting goods magnate Harry Passon (1897-1954) and schoolmate Edwin “Hughie” Black (1897-1986). The majority of the team’s players were Jewish, and enthusiastic fans jammed the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel on North Broad Street on Saturday nights to watch them play. The team won eleven championships while playing in a series of leagues between 1930 and 1945, but after a change in ownership in 1950 became one of three touring opponents of the Harlem Globetrotters. 

Some of the SPHAS’ top players joined the region’s next professional basketball team: the Philadelphia Warriors, formed when Philadelphia received a franchise in the new Basketball Association of America (BAA) following World War II. Eddie Gottlieb (by this time no longer active with the SPHAS) became coach and general manager of the Warriors, whose players also included athletes from the University of Pennsylvania, St. Joseph’s College, and Temple University. Playing in the Philadelphia Arena at Forty-Fifth and Market Streets, the Warriors attracted crowds of more than eight thousand fans as they won the inaugural league title following the 1946-47 season. After three seasons, the Warriors became a team in the National Basketball Association (NBA), which formed from a merger of the BAA and the National Basketball League. Splitting home games between the Philadelphia Arena and the higher-capacity Civic Center beginning in 1952, the Warriors won the league championship again in 1955-56 with a roster including homegrown players from LaSalle, Penn, and Villanova. 

Enter Wilt Chamberlain

Black and white photograph showing Wilt Chamberlain colliding into a player on the opposing team as he jumps to take a shot.
76ers star Wilt Chamberlain bumps Celtic player Bill Russell to win a rebound. (John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries)

A new star player came to the Warriors in the 1959-60 season. Sevenfoot Overbrook High School graduate Wilt Chamberlain (1936-99), who also played for the University of Kansas and the Harlem Globetrotters, led the NBA in scoring and rebounds on the way to winning Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player honors. In March 1962, in a game against the New York Knicks played at Hershey Sports Arena to expand the Warriors’ fan base, Chamberlain scored 100 points. Remarkably, given Chamberlain’s record as a notoriously bad free throw shooter, he went 28-32 in the game while playing all forty-eight minutes. In Philadelphia and with other teams, Chamberlain ultimately played sixteen seasons in the NBA. 

Following the 1961-62 season, Gottlieb sold the Warriors to a group from San Francisco led by Franklin Mieuli (1920-2010), a radio and television producer. However, the NBA returned to Philadelphia in 1963-64 when investors Irv Kosloff (1912-95) and Ike Richman (1913-65) purchased and relocated the Syracuse Nationals. Renamed the 76ers (or Sixers), the team did not fare well in its first season. The next season, the team acquired Wilt Chamberlain from the Warriors, but it took two more seasons for the Sixers to achieve greatness. During 1966-67, Chamberlain led the 76ers to a 68-13 record and their first NBA championship. After the next seasonthe first season of play in the new, 15,000-seat Spectrum arena in South Philadelphia—the Sixers acceded to Chamberlain’s desire to play on the West Coast and traded him to the Los Angeles Lakers. The trade began a decline that reached its nadir in 1972-73, when the Sixers compiled a 9-73 record, the worst in NBA history. 

The Sixers found a winning path again after acquiring American Basketball Association star Julius Erving (Dr. J) (b. 1950) before the 1976-77 season. As new owner Fitz Eugene Dixon Jr. (1923-2006) increasingly invested in talent, the team reached the finals following the 1976-77, 1979-80, and 1980-81 seasons. Harold Katz (b. 1936), who bought the Sixers in 1981, continued improving the team. Then, after acquiring Moses Malone (1955-2015) from the Houston Rockets before the 1982-83 season, the Sixers swept the Lakers and won the championship. In later years, the Sixers reached the playoffs eighteen times and the NBA finals once. Comcast Spectacor bought the Sixers from Katz in 1996 and expanded the potential attendance for Sixers games to 21,000 with the opening of the CoreStates Center (later renamed First Union, Wachovia, and then Wells Fargo Center). Ownership changed again in 2011 when an investment group led by New York billionaire Joshua Harris (b. 1965) and actor/singer Will Smith (b. 1968), a Philadelphia native, purchased the team. Key players during the post-Erving era included power forward Charles Barkley (b. 1963), point guard Allen Iverson (b. 1975), and swingman Andre Iguodala (b. 1984), who later earned most valuable player honors in the 2015 NBA finals while playing with the Golden State Warriors. In 2019, the Sixers made it to the playoffs but lost to eventual NBA champion Toronto Raptors on a last-second shot in the seventh game.  

Women’s Basketball 

Color photograph depicting Dawn Staley holding a cellphone to take a selfie with Governor Nikki Haley and her team of women basketball players.
Philadelphia-native and coach of the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team Dawn Staley (pictured furthest to the right) snaps a selfie with her team and Governor Nikki Haley. (South Carolina Office of the Governor)

Women’s professional basketball came to Philadelphia in 1979during the second season of the first women’s professional league, the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League. The Philadelphia Fox played just ten games in November and December 1979, winning two and losing eight, before financial difficulties and ownership disputes ended the team. Nearly two decades passed before the 1996 gold-medal performance of the U.S. women’s basketball team at the Olympics ushered in a new generation of women’s professional leagues—the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA) created by the NBA and the American Basketball League (ABL)Philadelphia gained a women’s team once again when the Rage, formerly based in Richmond, Virginia, moved before the 1997-98 seasonWith the Rage came team leader Dawn Staley (b. 1970), Philadelphia native who had been a standout player for Dobbins Technical High School, the University of Virginia, and the U.S. Olympic team. Despite Staley’s star power and a home court at the University of Pennsylvania’s Palestra, the Rage attracted lower than expected attendance and compiled a losing season of 13 wins against 31 loses. Staley left for the WNBA, and by December 1998 the bankruptcy of the ABL also brought an end to the Rage. 

Women also played a role in coaching and management. Although Philadelphia has never had a WNBA franchise, in 2019 Collingswood, New Jersey, native and former Lehigh University player Cathy Engelbert (b. c. 1965) became commissioner of the league.  Former WNBA player Lindsey Harding (b. 1984) in 2019 served briefly as an assistant coach for the 76ers before leaving to coach for the Sacramento Kings. A developmental professional women’s team also began play in Philadelphia in 2019 with a goal of growing into a WNBA franchise. The Reign, of the Women’s Basketball Development Association, played home games at Chestnut Hill College during the 2019 season. 

Beyond Philadelphia 

Professional basketball players from the Philadelphia area made their mark elsewhere in the NBA and other leagues. A player from Villanova, Paul Arizin (1928-2006), became the league’s first great scorer and one of the top NBA players of all time. Earl Monroe (b. 1944), who played college basketball at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, helped the New York Knicks win the NBA title in 1973. Rasheed Wallace (b. 1974), who played at the University of North Carolina, led the Detroit Pistons to the NBA title in 2004. Joe Bryant (b. 1954) of LaSalle played eight seasons from the Sixers, San Diego Clippers, and Houston Rockets, and his son Kobe Bryant (1978-2020) went straight from Lower Merion High School to the Los Angeles Lakers and led them to five NBA championships. Louis “Red” Klotz (1920-2004), who started with the Philadelphia SPHAS, later formed the teams that played the Harlem Globetrotters. Dawn Staley, in addition to her play in the ABL and WNBA for more than a decade, was a three-time Olympic gold medalist and coached at Temple University, the University of South Carolina, and the women’s national basketball team. Adding to a professional basketball heritage extending over 120 years, these Philadelphiaarea basketball players contributed to the success of Philadelphia teams and others in professional leagues.  

Karen Guenther is Professor of History at Mansfield University and author of Sports in Pennsylvania, published by the Pennsylvania Historical Association. (Author information current at time of publication.)

Copyright 2020, Rutgers University 


Wilt Chamberlain

John W. Mosley Photograph Collection, Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries

By the end of his career, Wilt Chamberlain (1936–99) held many NBA records, including most rebounds, a record which remains unbroken today. Chamberlain’s reputation as a top player began during his time at Overbrook High School in Philadelphia where he led the team to records of 19-2, 19-0, and 18-1. In 1955, Chamberlain went on to play for the University of Kansas Jayhawks. Chamberlain returned to Philadelphia after college and debuted with the Philadelphia Warriors. At the end of the 1959–60 season, he was awarded NBA Rookie of the Year, All-Star Game Most Valuable Player and NBA Most Valuable Player. On March 2, 1962, in a game against the New York Knicks played at Hershey Sports Arena to expand the Warriors’ fan base, Chamberlain scored 100 points.

Chamberlain went to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1965. The team, which had been the Syracuse National until the 1963–64 season, won its first NBA championship in 1967. Chamberlain later left the 76ers for the Los Angeles Lakers, where he finished his career.

Julius Erving

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Julius Erving (b. 1950) pioneered a stylistic and expressive way of playing basketball that would dominate in the decades following his career. His mid-air spins and slam dunks wowed audiences and made him a household name.

Erving began his professional career in the 1971–72 season with the Virginia Squires. Prior to the 1973–74 season, the Squires traded him to the New York Nets. He led the Nets to two championships before the dissolution of the American Basketball Association (ABA). Though the Nets were one of the few teams absorbed into the NBA, Erving was sold to the Philadelphia 76ers right before the start of the 1976–77 season.

Erving helped bring the 76ers out of a decline that had reached a nadir in 1972–73, when the Sixers compiled a 9-73 record, the worst in NBA history. The team reached the NBA finals in the 1976–77, 1979–80, and 1980–81 seasons, but failed to win the championship. Finally, in the 1982–83 season, the 76ers beat the Los Angeles Lakers, giving Erving his first and only NBA championship. He retired after the 1986–87 season at the age of thirty-seven. In 1993, Erving was selected for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

Eddie Gottlieb

Special Collections Research Center, Temple University Libraries

Eddie Gottlieb (1898–1979), known as the “mogul” of basketball, began his career in 1917 when he helped organize a team for the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA). When the YMHA withdrew sponsorship for the team because they believed the sport was too violent, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association briefly took over the sponsorship, and the team became known as the SPHAs.

In 1946, Gottlieb helped found the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and started the Philadelphia Warriors as his BAA franchise. As coach and general manager, Gottlieb led the Warriors to their first NBA championships. When the Warriors left Philadelphia in 1962, Gottlieb moved to San Francisco with the team. He served as a member of the NBA Competition and Rules Committee until his death in 1979.

Wells Fargo Center

Jeff Fusco Comcast Spectacor / Comcast Spectacor

In 1996, Comcast Spectacor purchased the 76ers and opened a new arena in South Philadelphia, the CoreStates Center. With seating for 21,000 fans and 126 luxury suites, the CoreStates Center was much larger than the 76ers’ previous home, the Spectrum. In 1998, the arena became known as the First Union Center. The name would change again to the Wachovia Center in 2003, and the Wells Fargo Center in 2010. The Well Fargo Center is home to the 76ers, the Philadelphia Flyers of the National Hockey League, and the Philadelphia Soul of the Arena Football League.

Dawn Staley

South Carolina Office of the Governor

Dawn Staley (b. 1970) began her acclaimed career as a player after winning National High School Player of the Year during her final year at Murrell Dobbins Technical High School in Philadelphia. Staley played for the University of Virginia, where she set a new NCAA record for career steals. Staley was a member of the of the USA women’s basketball team nearly every year between 1989 and 2004. The team’s gold medal win in 1996 ushered in a new generation of women’s professional leagues—the Women’s National Basketball League (WNBA) created by the NBA and the American Basketball League (ABL). When the Virginia-based ABL team the Rage moved to Philadelphia prior to the 1997–98 season, Staley returned to her home city as a member of the team. However, she left shortly after for the WNBA, and by December 1998 the bankruptcy of the ABL brought an end to the Rage.

Following her playing career, Staley turned to coaching taking over the women’s basketball program at Temple University in the 2000–01 season. During her tenure at Temple, Staley led the team to four Atlantic 10 Conference Tournament titles, a huge transformation for a program that had never previously won the tournament. Staley accepted a coaching position at the University of South Carolina for the 2008–09 season. During her eleven seasons at South Carolina, Staley holds a cumulative record of 273-97.

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Time Periods



Related Reading

Guenther, Karen. Sports in Pennsylvania.  Mansfield, Pa.:  Pennsylvania Historical Association, 2007. 

Philadelphia Daily News. Philadelphia’s Greatest Sports Moments.  Champaign, Ill.:  Sports Publishing, Inc., 2000. 

Westcott, Rich. A Century of Philadelphia Sports. Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 2001. 

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