June 20, 2001
Toronto, Ontario

Hoops and the 'Hebrews'

By Jon Entine

The Philadelphia basketball team had a pint-sized but flashy star shooter. Its old-school coach was more teacher than tough disciplinarian. Media references to the Biblical David abounded.

Sound like the scrappy Philadelphia 76ers, who hosted the mighty Lakers during the NBA Finals? Nope. It's the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association SPHAs, who dominated basketball in the 1920s and '30s.

The flashy shooter was set-shot expert Inky Lautman and the savvy coach was Eddie Gottlieb. The Biblical David was the six-pointed star on the team jerseys.

The only thing Jewish about the current 76ers is coach Larry Brown, who starred on the U.S. gold-medal team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel before launching his pro career. But there are plenty of parallels between the "Hebrews," as the SPHAs were nicknamed, and the 76ers.

Both were subject to sometimes egregious racial stereotyping. Once the bad boy rap star of basketball, Allen Iverson has always been praised, even by his detractors, for his lightning speed but never given credit for his basketball smarts.

The two newest showmen of modern basketball, Iverson and the Lakers' Kobe Bryant, are praised for "natural talents." Is that a compliment or an unwitting devaluation of their achievements?

Such stereotypes reflect a tradition that goes back seven decades, when the game emerged from East Coast ghettos.

"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, "is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness."

With the emergence of the Nazis in Germany and escalating anti-Semitism in the United States, Jewish players faced incessant racial slurs and biased officials in small towns.

"The toughest place was Prospect Hall, the home of the Brooklyn Visitation," said Gottlieb. "Half the fans would come to see the Jews get killed and the other half were Jews coming to see our boys win. They used to have a balcony that hung over the court and serve the fans bottled beer and sandwiches. Whenever something would happen down on the court those Brooklyn fans didn't like, they'd send bottles down at us."

The chief rivals of the Hebrews were in New York: the Hakoahs, the Celtics, the Knights of St. Anthony's and the New York Renaissance, the premier African American team. The encounters were legendary.

According to Renaissance star William "Pop" Gates, the SPHAs were renowned as a "thinking" team while the Rens were famous for their "quickness" -- stereotypes about Jews and blacks that endure today.

The Hebrews eventually morphed into the Philadelphia Warriors, who were sold to San Francisco interests in 1962. The Sixers came into being a year later when the Syracuse Nats, with Jewish star Dolph Schayes, moved to Philadelphia.

The dying Jewish basketball tradition now rests on the shoulders of Philadelphia adopted favourite sons Brown and Iverson, who've emerged as the Batman and Robin of modern basketball, an unlikely blend of Old World tradition and hip-hop, hardscrabble dedication.

The underdog 76ers, cast as David, may have struggled against the Goliath, the Lakers, but the stereotypes about them tell us about a lot more than basketball.

Jon Entine is a journalist and Emmy-winning producer formerly with NBC and ABC news who lives in southern California.