In 1917, a group of Jewish high school graduates in Philadelphia formed a basketball team that competed against other local teams. Affiliated with the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) at first, the team soon became known as the SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) after the YMHA withdrew its sponsorship because it considered the sport too violent. Except for a couple of seasons in the 1920s, the team kept the name SPHAS until it disbanded in 1959 after achieving a long record of success.
Eddie Gottlieb (1898-1979), Harry “Chickie” Passon (1897-1954), and Edwin “Hughie” Black (1897-1986) organized the team after graduating from South Philadelphia High School. Black and Gottlieb, who then attended the School of Pedagogy at Temple University, joined with Passon and other friends to compete in the minor league American League of Philadelphia for two seasons with the support of the YMHA. Next, the SPHA sponsored the team, and even though the organization soon withdrew its support, the team retained the name. By the early 1920s, the SPHAS no longer needed sponsorship after Gottlieb, Black, and Passon opened a sporting goods store to provide their own uniforms (by the end of the decade, Passon bought out his partners to form Passon Sporting Goods, which became Philadelphia’s leading sporting goods store). The SPHAS played in the American League until 1922, then spent one season in the Manufacturer’s League, which mostly consisted of company teams.
Philadelphia Jews ardently supported the team, which continued to play with a majority of Jewish athletes. Other teams also had Jewish players, but they were most dominant on the SPHAS. Fans packed the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel on North Broad Street to watch the SPHAS Saturday night games, then went dancing after the games. The team also retained a connection with Temple University, which served as a local college pipeline for players. The team won its first professional title at the end of the 1923-24 season, while playing in the Philadelphia League. Under Gottlieb’s leadership, the SPHAS became one of the top teams in Philadelphia and traveled to play outside the regional league. After one season (1926) in the short-lived Eastern League, Gottlieb scheduled games against teams competing in the American Basketball League and prominent barnstorming teams, including the Original Celtics and New York Renaissance (the Rens).
After playing for one season (1926-27) as the Warriors in the American Basketball League, the team once again became the SPHAS and joined a revived Eastern Basketball League for 1929-30. Clearly the best team in the league, with a new star in future Temple University basketball coach Harry Litwack (1907-99), the SPHAS won the league’s championship in three of the four years of its existence.
Success continued between 1933 and 1947, as the SPHAS reached the playoffs twelve times and won seven championships in a new American Basketball League (ABL), formed in 1933. The team continued to play in the ABL after it reverted to a minor league following the 1945-46 season, with less success. Meanwhile, Gottlieb became coach and general manager of the Philadelphia Warriors as a franchise in the new Basketball Association of America (forerunner of the National Basketball Association) and he brought some of the SPHAS’ top players with him. Litwack, who also coached Temple’s men’s basketball team, took over as coach of the SPHAS.
In 1950 Gottlieb sold the SPHAS, and former star Louis “Red” Klotz (1920-2014) found a new role for the team as one of three touring opponents for the Harlem Globetrotters. Klotz changed the team’s name, first to the Washington Generals in honor of President Dwight D. Eisenhower (1890-1969) and later to the Baltimore Rockets. Under Klotz’s leadership, the SPHAS went from being a championship-caliber team to the brunt of the Globetrotters’ hijinks. The SPHAS officially ceased operations in October 1959 but could look back on success as one of Philadelphia’s championship basketball teams from the first half of the century. To the end, the team retained its predominantly Jewish identity.
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.)
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