January 2000
Philadelphia Magazine

Questions of Race

by Jon Entine

Seven decades ago, basketball's biggest stars climbed up from the Philadelphia ghettos. Sportswriters said these "natural athletes" owed their success to their ethnicity. Sounds familiar, except that they were Jewish.

It was vintage Allen Iverson, before his untimely broken thumb. The usually elusive Sixer was trapped in the corner in a game against Seattle at the First Union Center, looking for an outlet pass. In an instant, he deftly executed a crossover dribble, flashed a devilish grin, and slipped between two towering Super-Sonics, who were suddenly frozen in their tracks like a couple of deer who'd just wandered onto I-95. Before they could react, Iverson coasted under the basket for a reverse lay-up and nonchalantly jogged back down the court.

Such matter-of-fact showiness has become the signature of the best players in professional basketball. And as any fan can plainly see, virtually all the best players are African-Americans. There aren't many six-foot superstar point guards who are white.

So here is what many of us assume about Allen Iverson: For starters, he owes his natural ability to the fact that he's black. Blacks can jump higher and dribble better than "most" whites, which is why 85 percent of the NBA is African-American. And for Iverson and other inner-city or rural blacks, basketball is seen as one of the only ways out of poverty. Isiah Thomas, the All-Star guard from the Detroit Pistons, used to say that he was sick of all the fawning over Larry Bird's brainy, hardworking play while he himself was praised for being so "naturally" athletic. "When whites perform well, it's due to [their] thinking and work habit," he commented. "It's not the case for blacks. All we do is run and jump. We never practice or give a thought to how we play. It's like I came dribbling out of my mother's womb."

Many of us, white and black, don't say these things—especially if we're network sportscasters—but we certainly think them. We think them of Iverson, who escaped the inner city, as well as of Kobe Bryant, who grew up in affluent Lower Merion. "The growing black domination of the most popular American sports is twisted and offered a 'proof' that 'physically superior' blacks are less intelligent than whites," asserts Harry Edwards, a sociologist at the University of California at Berkely. "Behind that prejudice is the unstated belief that blacks are somehow closer to beasts and animals. And that's where the indignity comes in."

It's an awkward topic, one that is difficult to discuss without drawing charges of racism, but one that is provoking renewed interest for the noblest of reasons. The conventional P.C. wisdom of the past 30 years—that race is irrelevant to everything—is being overturned. The remarkable findings of the Human Genome Project are showing more and more ways in which our race affects our lives, from our susceptibility to certain diseases to our athletic abilities. Cultural stereotypes and socioeconomic conditions actually play far less of a role than they used to in determining who excels in particular sports. Indeed, athletics may have become the first true meritocracy in American life—and blacks have risen to the top because they really are genetically better suited for running and jumping and the key skills required to play certain sports at the highest level.

No one can or should down-play the critical role of culture and environment in shaping great athletes. In an earlier era, in fact, basketball was actually dominated by Jews. And, interestingly, many of the cultural stereotypes now trained on blacks were once focused on Jewish players, especially here in Philadelphia, home to one of basketball's pioneering teams of the 20's and 30's.

The European Jews who flooded off immigrant ships into the ghettos of new York, Philadelphia and Baltimore at the turn of the century were considered by some WASP Americans to be morally inferior, a stereotype that has long attached to blacks. Both ethnic groups became prominent in hoops, and for many of the same reasons.

"Basketball is a city game," notes Sonny Hill, a local icon who has run a high-school summer league for more than 35 years. "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."

Not even New York could challenge the City of Brotherly Love in basketball talent. From 1918 onward, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team, or SPHAs (pronounced "Spas"), barnstormed across the East and Midwest, playing in a variety of semipro leagues that were precursors to the NBA. In an incredible 22-season stretch, the SPHAs played in 18 championship series, losing only five. In the early years of the Depression, the SPHAs surpassed both of Philadelphia's baseball reams, the Athletics and the Phillies, in popularity.

"Every Jewish boy was playing basketball," said the late Harry Litwack, who starred for the SPHAs in the 1930s before going on to coach Temple 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 was out of the ghetto," added Dave Dabrow, also deceased, a guard with the original SPHAs. "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." Sound familiar?

The first intercollegiate game in the East, a 6-4 shellacking of Temple by Haverford College, took place in March 1894, at the Temple gymnasium. Basketball had a notorious reputation back then. The rules provided for few fouls, making the game a barely controlled melee. 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 pileups 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 Philadelphia, leading to a temporary ban on the game at local YMCAs, which were fearful that their Christian boys would be corrupted.

Not so the Jewish, Irish, Polish and Italian communities, filled with the sons of hardscrabble immigrants. The two best high-school squads, Southern and rival Central, were stocked with first-generation Jews. Future SPHAs Eddie Gottlieb, Harry "Chicky" Passon, Edwin "Hughie" Black, Mockie Bunnin and Charlie Newman led Southern to city titles in 1914, 1915 and 1916. These 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.

The best high-school graduates went on to play for one of the church teams, until anti-Semitism heated up. In 1918, Eddie Gottlieb and some of his former high school buddies convinced the Young Men's Hebrew Association at 4th and Reed to buy them uniforms with Hebrew initials and the Magen David as team symbols. They played all comers, teams cobbled together from as far away as Chicago. And for the next few years, they earned as much as $5 a game each—big bucks for ghetto kids.

"Half the fans would come to see the Jews get killed, and the other half were Jews coming to see our boys win," Gottlieb remembered. Needless to say, there were a lot of brawls.

By the end of the 1921 season, the SPHA uniforms had become too ragged to wear, but the YMHA couldn't come up with the money for new ones. Gottlieb, Black and Passon started a local sporting goods store, Passon's, which soon became a city landmark—and which also paid for uniforms. With that crisis resolved, the SPHAs ventured out into the world of traveling semipro ball, retaining their team name and Jewish identity. At times, it was a brutal experience. The Jewish players faced incessant racial slurs and biased officials in the small towns in which they played.

"The toughest place was Prospect Hall, the home of the Brooklyn Visitation," said Gottlieb. "They used to have a balcony that hung over the court, and they'd serve the fans bottle beer and sandwiches. Whenever something would happen down on the court that those Brooklyn fans didn't like, they'd send those bottles down at us." Litwack recalled having to be careful just going down the court: "There was a lady in the front row with hat pins. She used to jab you when you went by."

Tuesday night doubleheaders at the YMHA at Broad and Pine streets attracted crowds of 1,500 or more to watch Lautman, Passon, lady-killer Cy Kaselman and Gottlieb display their skills. At the height of their success, in the late 1920's, the SPHAs were one of the best teams in the country playing up and down the East Coast. Their chief rivals were the New York Celtics, a powerful Jewish-Irish team, and the New York Renaissance, the premier Negro team, whom the SPHAs met in special exhibition games. (The leagues were segregated.)

The Rens were flashy players by the standards of the 1920s, though they would seem merely methodical today, and they were almost unbeatable. The encounters between the "Yids" and the "Niggers" were legendary, particularly at the marvelous Ballroom at Philadelphia's Broadwood Hotel, where tickets went for a lofty 65 cents and 2,500 spectators jammed the stands. "Usually when the Renaissance would have you licked, the last three, four minutes of the game, they'd start passing the ball around, and the crowd would to crazy," recalled Gottlieb. According to "Pop" Gates, the star of the Renaissance, the SPHAs were renowned as a "thinking" team, while the Rens were famous for their "quickness"—stereotypes about Jews and blacks that endure today.

So why did Jews dominate basketball for most of a quarter-century? This era was steeped in the belief that such skills were innate—and dictated by race. One of the strongest promoters of this ideology was Dr. Samuel George Morton, a mid-19th-century Philadelphia physician whose pursuit of the science of craniometry—measuring the skulls of different races—was pivotal in the evolution of an American brand of racism. Although he was a Quaker and an outspoken abolitionist, Morton made his name by amassing a personal museum of 600 skulls—and establishing a ranking of racial intelligence based on cranial size. Asians and whites came out on top, with Native Americans and Africans toward the bottom. This controversial data led some to reach the conclusion that certain races—blacks and Jews, for example—were not a "civilized" as others.

Morton's work helped fuel a public obsession with eugenics and racial differences that raged until the genocides of World War II. When it came to basketball, writers of the time opined that Jews had an advantage because short men have better balance and more foot speed. Jews 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? And it was also said that Jews were clever.

"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 and one of the premier sportswriters of the 1930s, "is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness."

Following World War II, the new generation of Jews began moving on to other pursuits—not to mention the suburbs. By the late 1940s, dominion over the urban basketball courts had passed to the fastest-growing group of urban dwellers, mostly blacks who had migrated north from dying Southern plantations. In a few short years, the SPHAs became reduced to a supporting role as the slow-footed white boys in one-night stands against the Harlem Globetrotters, who had evolved into a vaudeville act after the NBA began stealing its best players. Before long, the stereotype of the "scheming" and "trickiness" of Jews was replaced by that of the "natural athleticism" of Negroes.

We know now, of course, that Jews are not innately suited for basketball. The SPHAs and the heyday of Jewish basketball resulted from a combination of environmental factors, hard work, and a dearth of opportunities elsewhere.

For much of the past century, socioeconomic barriers determined who would compete in what sports—and therefore who could succeed. But with the homogenization of American culture after World War II, racial barriers have slowly melted away. Blacks still find it difficult to break into many specialized or country-club sports, like bobsledding or golf, in which equipment costs are steep. But sports that used to exclude or segregate blacks—baseball, basketball, football and track-and-field—are now open to all races. Where cultural channeling once shaped the rosters of basketball teams, now the cream is free to rise to the top. And where natural talent matters most, blacks dominate.

This on-the-field dominance is not limited to basketball. Fully 70 percent of the NFL if black, and nearly 40 percent of Major League Baseball players are African-American or black Latinos. The phenomenon is most apparent in men's running, a sport with perhaps the fewest entry barriers—all you need are shoes, and sometimes not even that. Every major world record is running, from the 100 meters to the marathon, belongs to an athlete of African descent. North and East Africans, Kenyans in particular, dominate the distance races, while athletes of West African descent monopolize sprinting.

Since 1964, Kenya has collected 46 Olympic medals in running events, including 17 golds in men's races—a haul exceeded only by the sprinter-rich United States, with a population 10 times larger. The Kenyans' success has come in distances of 800 meters or more—distance events where there are a few white and Asian contenders. But there are no elite 100-meter sprinters who are not black. Not one. Moreover, no Asian or white has ever cracked the 10-second barrier, while dozens of blacks have done so. In fact, the top 200 personal best times are held by blacks. In the past four Olympic men's 100-meter races, all 32 of the finalists were of West African heritage.

Arthur Ashe Jr., the first black man to win the U.S. Open, the Australian Open and Wimbledon, wrestled with such statistics for much of the last decade of his life while writing his groundbreaking A Hard Road to Glory, which catalogs the history of black accomplishment in sports. In the process, he accumulated thousands of anecdotes of how cultural and environmental forces shaped black success in sports. But the idea that blacks have some innate advantage troubled him on several levels.

"Damn it," he sighed, frustrated at the political incorrectness of his own beliefs. "My heart says 'no,' but my head says 'yes.' I have to believe that we blacks have something that gives us an edge. I want to hear from the scientists."

The science of genetics now offers powerful evidence that blacks have some innate advantages over other races in certain sports. There is now extensive and persuasive research, documented in dozens of studies, that each "fuzzy" population cluster—East African, West African, European white and Perhaps hundreds more—has distinct "phenotypes," or physical and physiological attributes. And scientists are now discovering genetic bases for many of these differences. The issue of contention is whether these matter on the athletic field, considering the wide variation within each geographic, racial and ethnic population. While some sociologists remain dubious, most "hard" scientists are now convinced that, on average, West African-descended blacks draw on a physiological and biomechanical gold mine when it comes to anaerobic sports such as football, basketball and sprinting.

Why should we care? Because we have no choice. As scientists unravel the secrets of our genetic composition—all 140,000 human genes are expected to be mapped within the next two years—science is coming to appreciate that when it comes to diseases (and physical ability), population genetics may play a more critical role than culture and environment. We accept, without much question or racial overtone, that genetically linked, highly inheritable characteristics such as skeletal structure are not evenly distributed across racial groups. Some 3,000 genetically based diseases have been identified in humans, hundreds of which aggregate by race. For example, almost 90 percent of Native Americans, Orientals and blacks are lactose-enzyme deficient. Several different mutations, including defective genes that lead to breast cancer and Tay-Sachs disease, are common to Ashkenazi Jews, who trace their ancestry to Central Europe. Blacks are genetically more susceptible to Alzheimer's and are 10 times more likely than whites to be born with the gene that triggers sickle-cell disease—a gene which in the not-too-distant evolutionary past offered the compensatory benefit of protecting its bearer from malaria.

So why do we readily accept that evolution has turned out Jews with a genetic predisposition to Tay-Sachs or that colorectal cancer is far more common among those of West African descent, yet find it racist to suggest that West Africans have evolved into the world's best sprinters?

Muscle fiber types, reflex capabilities, metabolic efficiency, lung capacity and a host of other variables that determine success in the world of sports are clearly not distributed evenly between populations. Biology circumscribes possibility. "Differences among athletes of elite caliber are so small that if you have an advantage that might be genetically based...it might be very, very significant," notes Michigan State University anthropologist Robert Malina, who studied black/white differences in earning his doctorate in anthropology at Penn. "The fraction of a second is the difference between the gold medal and fourth place."

In other words, for all our apparent differences, on the sporting field and off, we are more like one another than not.