This week, Larry Needle, Executive Director of the Philadelphia Sports Congress and author of Homecourt: The True Story of the Best Basketball Team You’ve Never Heard Of, a new children’s book about Red Klotz and the SPHAS, writes about hoop dreams and memories.
With the unveiling of a historic marker commemorating the legendary SPHAS basketball team at the site of the old Broadwood Hotel April 14, the hoop memories run deep.
Memories of the SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association) teams of the first half of the 20th century, who made the Broadwood their home and helped to show the world that an all-Jewish basketball team could compete with the very best in the land.
Memories of “the Mogul,” Eddie Gottlieb, who founded the team in 1917 and coached them to multiple championships in the Eastern League and American Basketball League over three decades (including seven titles in 13 years from 1933-1946), before going on to be one of the founders of the NBA and owner of the Philadelphia Warriors NBA franchise.
Memories of the SPHAS winning in the toughest of environments, against nasty, often anti-Semitic crowds, in gyms from Cleveland to Brooklyn, and Harlem to Trenton.
Of course, there was the scene at the Broadwood every Saturday night in the 1930s and ‘40s, fans dressed to the nines for the game and the dance that followed on the court immediately afterwards, with SPHAS player turned bandleader Gil Fitch often playing both roles.
Men paid 65 cents for their tickets and women 35 cents. Hot dogs were a dime. During games, another legend in the making, PA announcer Dave Zinkoff, would give away a salami and a $20 suit to Gerson’s department store.
And there were, of course, the SPHAS players. Names like Lou Forman, Shikey Gotthofer, Cy Kaselman, Inky Lautman, and Temple legend Harry Litwack. And of course there was Red Klotz.
Growing up in South Philly, Red’s legendary set shot would help lead him on a career from South Philadelphia High School to Villanova University, and championships with the SPHAS in 1942 and the NBA’s Baltimore Bullets in 1948.
At 5-7, he was usually the shortest player on the team, but that didn’t begin to measure his heart or his passion for the sport of basketball. Because that NBA championship wasn’t the end of his basketball career, it was merely the beginning.
Red would go on the become the founder and owner (as well as player and coach) of the Washington Generals, the team that would play foil to the Harlem Globetrotters over the next 60 years. He became one of the sport’s great ambassadors, bringing basketball and smiles to millions of people around the globe, as well as lessons of sportsmanship and tolerance.
Of course, his legacy of winning would turn to one of losing; more than ten thousand games of losing in fact, but always with dignity and grace. Of course, there was the exception, that one night in Martin, Tennessee, when Red hit the jumper to seal the Generals last recorded win against the Globetrotters in 1971.
Globetrotters legend Curly Neal recently said this about Red: “He may have been on the losing end of the scoreboard many nights, but the laughs and thrills that we brought to audiences all over the world is what makes Red a winner every single day. “ He called Red “the little giant with the timeless two-handed set shot and game-winning smile.”
Despite Red’s phenomenal career and contributions to the sport of basketball, he has yet to be honored by the Basketball Hall of Fame. Just this week, the 2013 inductee class was announced, and Red was again sadly denied his rightful spot in the Hall.
Red is now 92, and lives with his wife Gloria in Margate, surrounded by family, friends and rooms full of basketball memories that he helped to create.
Of course, there is still room on the shelf for the one missing piece; what should be the crowning achievement to a career dedicated to playing the game the right way, and teaching those lessons to countless players, coaches and fans over the decades.
Red’s story is one of many in an incredible legacy created by the SPHAS, a legacy that will forever be honored with the new historic marker.
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