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Jewish Basketball Giants

May 9, 2009 | by Jon Entine

As the Maccabiah Games open in Israel, we are reminded of the days when -- believe it or not -- Jewish players dominated pro basketball.

It was a hilarious moment in the 1980 comedy movie classic "Airplane!"

Flight attendant: "Would you like something to read?"

Passenger: "Do you have something light?"

Flight attendant: "How about this short leaflet -- Jewish Sports Legends."

With the once-threatened quadrennial Maccabiah Games -- the Jewish Olympics -- now scheduled to begin on July 16, the idea of an elite Jewish sports tradition hearkens back to the first half of the 20th century, when Jews actually dominated one sport, basketball. The Philadelphia team had a pint-sized but flashy star shooter. Its old school coach was more teacher than tough disciplinarian. References to the Biblical David abounded in the media.

Sounds like the Philadelphia 76ers, who captured the hearts of much of America with their gritty determination in this year’s NBA playoffs?

Nope. It's a team of Jews -- the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association SPHAs (pronounced "spas") -- who dominated basketball in the 1920s and '30s.

The flashy shooter was set-shot expert Inky Lautman and the Biblical David was the six-pointed star on the early SPHA's jerseys. The "Hebrews," as they were called, eventually morphed into the NBA's first champion, the 1946-47 Philadelphia Warriors.

"The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background," wrote Paul Gallico, sports editor of the New York Daily News in the 1930s, "is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness."

Writers opined that Jews had an advantage in basketball because short men have better balance and more foot speed. They were also thought to have sharper eyes, which of course cut against the stereotype that Jewish men were myopic and had to wear glasses. But who says stereotypes have to be consistent?


Basketball has always been a game of the inner city. At the turn of the century, European Jews flooded off immigrant ships into the ghettos of the booming Eastern metropolises. New York and Philadelphia were the epicenters of the basketball world, with the dominant team, the Hebrews, ensconced in South Philly.

"Basketball is a city game," notes Sonny Hill, an executive adviser with the Philadelphia 76ers. "If you trace basketball back to the 1920s, '30s, and '40s, that's when the Jewish people were very dominant in the inner city. And they dominated basketball."

The St. John's University team was dubbed the Wonder Five, and four Jews started on the 1929 team. After winning college basketball championships and amassing a 70-4 record in three seasons, the team moved intact into the American Basketball League as the New York Jewels.

"Every Jewish boy was playing basketball," said Harry Litwack, a SPHAs star in the 1930s and coach at Temple University for 21 years. "Every phone pole had a peach basket on it. And every one of those Jewish kids dreamed of playing for the SPHAs."

"It was absolutely a way out of the ghetto," said Dave Dabrow, a guard with the original Hebrews. "It was where the young Jewish boy would never have been able to go to college if it wasn't for the amount of basketball playing and for the scholarship."

In the early days, Jewish players earned $5 a game each -- big bucks for city kids.


Basketball had a notorious reputation back then. The rules provided for few fouls, making the game a barely-controlled melee. In instances where the basket had a backboard, it was to keep spectators from interfering with the ball. There was no out-of-bounds on many courts, which were often ringed with steel mesh.

It was common practice to drive an opponent into the fence, and pile-ups were as frequent as at hockey games today. Players paraded on and off the court with bandaged legs and bleeding heads. This offended the Victorian sensibilities of the Protestant ruling class in many cities, leading to a temporary ban on the game at local YMCAs.

The Jews introduced a different style of play.

"It was a quick-passing running game, as opposed to the bullying and fighting way which was popular other places," explained Litwack.

Although New York turned out, in pure numbers, more stars that were Jewish, the Philadelphia SPHAs were basketball's best known and most successful all-Jewish team. From 1918 onward, the "Hebrews" barnstormed across the East and Midwest, playing in a variety of semi-pro leagues that were precursors to the NBA. In an incredible 22-season stretch, they played in 18 championship series, winning 13.

Playing 80 or more games a year and with no home court to call their own, they were sometimes called "The Wandering Jews." Then, with the emergence of National Socialism in Germany and an escalation of anti-Semitism in the U.S., the Jewish players faced incessant racial slurs and biased officials in the small towns in which they played.

"Half the fans would come to see the Jews get killed, and the other half were Jews coming to see our boys win," said Gottlieb. "...Whenever something would happen down on the court that those Brooklyn fans didn't like, they'd send [beer] bottles down at us."

The Jewish heyday lasted until the late 1940s, when dominion over the urban basketball courts passed to blacks, the fastest-growing group of urban dwellers who were migrating north from dying Southern farms in search of opportunity. The new generation of Jews began moving on to other pursuits -- into teaching, off to dental school, and out to the suburbs.


In the modern era, a handful of Jews attained basketball stardom. The Syracuse Nats (later Philadelphia) were led by Dolph Schayes, considered by some to be the greatest Jewish player in the history of basketball. NBA rookie of the year in 1949 after starring at New York University, Schayes led the Nats to the NBA title in 1955. He was also named to 12 consecutive All Star Games.

Schayes took over as coach of the 76ers in 1964, leading them to their first ever title the next season. He coached the Buffalo Braves during their inaugural 1970 season. Schayes was voted into the NBA Hall of Fame, and was recently selected as one of the game's top 50 all-time players.

After the war, the Jewish legacy in basketball focused mostly on the coaching ranks, frequently manned by former players. Nat Holman capped off his remarkable career in 1949-50, when his City College of New York squad became the first and last team to win the "grand slam" of American college basketball -- championships of both the NCAA and NIT tournaments in the same season. Arnold "Red" Auerbach joined the Boston Celtics in 1950 and led them to 9 titles in 10 seasons. William "Red" Holtzman took the reigns of the New York Knicks, where he won two championships. All of these coaches were elected to the Hall of Fame.

The gritty Philadelphia 76ers are coached today by Larry Brown, who starred on the 1961 U.S. gold medal team at the Maccabiah Games.


In Israel, the quadrennial Maccabiah Games showcases the continued Jewish love of basketball. Ernie Grunfeld and Dolph's son Danny Schayes are among the NBA players who have competed in recent Maccabiah Games.

The most revered player in Israeli basketball history is the legendary Tal Brody, who led the U.S. team to the gold medal in the 1965Maccabiah Games. A star at the University of Illinois, and the 13th player selected in that year's NBA draft, Brody returned to the U.S. to pursue his pro career. But he was courted and wooed by Israel's top officials, including Moshe Dayan himself, to return and help promote the sport in Israel. The next year, Brody made aliyah.

The highlight of Brody's career came in 1977, when Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel's perennial basketball champions, defeated the Russian Army team, CSKA Moscow. The victory was a stepping-stone to Maccabi's clinching of the European Champion's Cup, and a symbolic event for the country. "We are on the map, and we are staying on the map," Brody said at the time. Brody was awarded the Israeli Prize in 1979 for his devotion to youth sports, which continues today.

Another Israeli basketball star, Micky Berkovitz, led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the European Cup in 1981, and was recently voted Israel's greatest sportsman in its first 50 years.

What's in store for this year's Maccabiah Games? The main attraction is a swimmer, American/Jewish/Soviet-born Lenny Krayzelburg, who won three gold medals in the Sydney Olympics. In basketball, the U.S. team are favored to win the gold medal -- coached by Clemson's Larry Shyatt, and led by USC star forward David Blumenthal.

Though it's a long way from the Philadelphia SPHAs, the Jewish love of basketball burns on.


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