When Basketball was Jewish

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By: Doug Stark

Today, when we think of Jews and sports, we normally do not think of the players but rather the owners, general managers, and commissioners. But sports in the first half of the 20th century were heavily populated by Jews. Basketball in particular was often regarded as a Jewish sport.

Most everyone knows Hank Greenberg, the great baseball player for the Detroit Tigers. Many might be aware of Barney Ross, a great boxing champion in the 1930s. However, I am sure few of you have ever heard of Inky Lautman, Cy Kaselman, or Shikey Gotthoffer.

These gentlemen comprised basketball’s greatest Jewish team, the SPHAs, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. The SPHAs were contemporaries of Greenberg and Ross in the 30s and were the best professional basketball team in the country.

In 2011, I wrote a book about the Philadelphia SPHAs from their humble beginning as a club team in 1918 to their rise as American Basketball League champions seven times in the 1930s, to touring with the famed Harlem Globetrotters in the 1950s. By the time the SPHAs finished playing in 1959, Wilt Chamberlain was first entering the NBA.

The SPHAs traveled across the East, South and Midwest, and the players challenged racial stereotypes of weakness and inferiority as they boosted the game’s popularity.

At the turn of the twentieth century, basketball was still in its infancy, but the game quickly became a favorite of the children of Jewish immigrants who were flocking to urban areas in the Northeast as they emigrated from Eastern Europe. As opposed to football and baseball, this new game of basketball was easier to play, required less space—important in the tenements of the cities—and was less expensive to play.

Harry Litwack, who played for the SPHAs and later became a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame coach for Temple University, recalled, “The Jews never got much into football or baseball. They were too crowded then.” Playing basketball required far less space and equipment than football or baseball. One needed only a hoop and ball. The ball could be made of rags rolled together or newspapers held together by string. The hoop could be a basket hung from a pole or a ladder behind an apartment.

Jerry Fleishman, who came of age as a youngster in the 1930s, remembers how he and his neighborhood friends improvised playing the game as a child. “When we were growing up, we were poor kids. We did not have basketballs. We rolled up newspapers and tied it together with a cord. There were fire escapes on the building, and the lower rung had a hole there, and we threw it through the lower rung. If it went through, it was either a basket or touchdown. That was our football and basketball.”

The SPHAs represented the Philadelphia Jewish community. On Saturday nights, SPHAs games were followed by dances at the Broadwood Hotel. Young Jewish singles attended the games, met, danced, and became American.

Today, there are two Jewish players in the National Basketball Association: Jordan Farmar plays for the Los Angeles Lakers, and Omri Casspi, an Israeli, plays for the Houston Rockets.

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