Jewish athletes, unheralded no more

In this blog entry, Doug Stark, author of The SPHAS, celebrates the achievements of basketball ‘s greatest Jewish team.

Many people are familiar with Hank Greenberg, the great slugging first baseman for the Detroit Tigers. Nearly as many people are aware of Barney Ross, the great boxing champion. Both were two of America’s best athletes in the 1930s. Both were Jewish.

By contrast, few if any individuals have heard of Shikey Gotthoffer, Inky Lautman, Cy Kaselman, Moe Goldman, Red Rosan, Red Wolfe, Petey Rosenberg, and Gil Fitch. And yet, these individuals comprised the greatest Jewish basketball team, the SPHAS, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. The SPHAS were contemporaries of Greenberg and Ross and they were the best professional basketball team in the 1930s.

 

The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team chronicles the true story of the team from their humble beginnings 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. When the SPHAS first started playing, World War I was nearing its completion. By the time the team finished in 1959, Wilt Chamberlain was first entering the NBA.

The book tells the true story of the team on and off the court, as the players challenged racial stereotypes of weakness and inferiority as they boosted the game’s popularity.

Basketball in those days was a Jewish sport and the SPHAS represented thePhiladelphiaJewish 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. One of the players, Gil Fitch had an orchestra that played at the dances, and big band singer Kitty Kallen had her start singing at SPHAS games.

Much has been written about Greenberg and Ross as well as the Original Celtics, Harlem Globetrotters, and New York Renaissance, three teams that competed against the SPHAS in the 1930s. I found it curious and a big omission that the SPHAS had not been significantly documented since their records and achievements are comparable to those other three teams. My goal in writing this book was to delve deeply into the team’s history and to show its arc from the days when basketball was played in cages to when dunking became popular.

One of the challenges in researching a book like this is that the team had not played a meaningful game in 70 years. Many of the players from the 1930s, the team’s heyday, had long since died, and tracking down family members was sometimes difficult. Newspapers proved to be the best source, although sports articles in the 1930s were more a recollection of the game rather than sports features that included quotes from the players. I also found it curious that the Jewish press rarely if at all covered the SPHAS. Hank Greenberg and Nat Holman (basketball player and coach with City College of New York) passed for sports coverage.

Visit the author’s website at http://www.douglasstark.com/

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