the SPHAS, domination in the face of anti-Semitism

To understand what we are going through today, it is important to know what happened yesterday. This is how, through the portrait of the different teams that shone long before the NBA was an all-powerful league, TrashTalk invites you to immerse yourself in a part of the history of basketball in the United States, far from the shots from the parking lot and other Top 10 that punctuate our daily lives. Today we go to Pennsylvania to visit the SPHAS, the players of the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association.

October 17, 1959 at Madison Square Garden. The Harlem Globetrotters defeated without forcing SPHAS (68-42) in front of 18,000 spectators. This is the last game in the history of the Philadelphia team, a few months before their official end. But already, for a few years, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association is only a shadow of the dominant formation that reigned over the basket, from the mid-1920s until the 1940s.

It was the arrival of the BAA in 1946 that marked the beginning of the end for the SPHAS. It must be said that their boss, Eddie Gottlieb, now has other projects in mind. Projects related to the new professional league. He participates in its creation and development with his franchise. But not that of the SPHAS, that of the Philadelphia Warriors. His lack of interest in his first love is such that the SPHAS will now regularly play their home games… away from Philadelphia, in order to make way for the Warriors. Nice for one of the first dynasties in basket history. Enough lamentations, let’s go back to see what made the greatness of these SPHAS.

The integration of Jews in the United States, in Philadelphia and in the basket

At the end of the nineteenth century, Philly was a city that dressed immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia. Among the lot, many Jews fleeing persecution and seeking to live on their own American dream.

At the same time, basketball also made its way across the United States, since its invention by Doctor James Naismith in 1891. In the City of Brotherly Love as in the whole territory, it was the YMCAs who suffered transmission vector for the orange ball. And quickly, their counterparts within the Hebrew community – the YMHAs – took over the sport on their own.

A young sport that dresses immigrants? They see it as a way to make their hole and fit in, the orange ball being much easier to access than baseball or American football. Just put any basket on a wall or a post, make a semblance of a ball: and zou, we’re playing basketball. This essentially urban practice opened favors for him in the various ghettos, particularly the Jewish quarters. Teams are formed to represent the different communities at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Jewish community, in the wake of the YMHAs, is on board.

She develops her own style of play, with movement, cuts to the basket, and this very quickly. Less rough, more focused on player movement. Quickly, basketball is associated with this community, not without prejudice. If on the one hand we consider that they have greater dexterity and game intelligence, we see that they move more on the floor, it is because they are less able to take contact. This is only the beginning of preconceptions about the Jewish community in the basket. While waiting for the rise of anti-Semitism during the twentieth century, which will reach its peak in the 1940s…

The beginnings of SPHAS

In Philly, the Jewish Quarter is in the south of the city. In a part of South Philadelphia made up of many community clusters. It was there that between 1914 and 1916, the local high school won three consecutive city titles in the wake of Eddie Gottlieb, Hughie Black and Harry Passon. After graduation, the young men continue their fun with the orange ball. They play under the patronage of the local YMHA and want to study basketball.

Unfortunately for them, after a first season in the American League of Philadelphia, the YMHA refuses to continue the adventure, presenting the sport too violent to contribute. Gottlieb, Black and Passon then approach the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association to be their sponsor. The flocked uniforms of the SPHA team arrive, it was born. And even if the union again only lasted a year, now a little more comfortable in their business the three young men take care of the equipment themselves and keep the SPHA, written in Hebrew.

Noticeable progress

We are then in 1919 and the team is therefore independent, semi-professional and composed only of Jewish players. They make about five dollars per meeting. A misery on the scale of the current NBA, but an unimportant detail for guys who do not think of living from their passion and who already have a job. To add to the archaic side of their organization, the SPHAS do not have a room to play. They manage on a case-by-case basis, a situation earning them the nickname of wandering jews (Wandering Jews).

They evolve in minor leagues, initially without much success. Until 1923-24 and the title within the Philadelphia League, validated by a double the following year. They then seek a higher competition and join the Eastern League. Admittedly, the level goes up a notch, but the organization is still just as random. So the league quickly collapses. Not a problem for the SPHAS who already allow themselves matches outside the framework of the Eastern League against other local teams, in order to fill the coffers. Financial mission which falls to Eddie Gottlieb who moves away from the parquet floors, having understood that his place is not on the ground but behind the scenes to pull the strings. The beginnings of a formidable journey for one of the future greatest managers of his time.

Southern Prime Hebrew Association

The fame of the team has grown, and they realize that they can aim even higher during these meetings. By occasionally rubbing shoulders with the formations of the American Basketball League (ABL), they know that they have the level to reach a new level. The question of barnstorming then arises. But finally, in 1926-27, they opted for the ABL. Small novelty, they change their name to be called Philadelphia Warriors. Does that tell you something? Logically, it’s the same name Gottlieb – who no longer plays but manages the team – would choose years later for his BAA franchise. The change of blaze and the passage in the league last only two years, the SPHAS regain their independence then join the Eastern Basketball League after one season. There, they become dominant with three titles and a final in four exercises. A more than correct balance sheet.

In 1933, the ABL rose from its ashes after two years of inactivity due to the Great Depression. The SPHAS are in on the fun and Gottlieb plays an important role behind the scenes in the league. After an irregular first part of the season, the arrival of pivot Morris “Moe” Goldman gave them a real boost and allowed them to seek the title. Six more will follow over the next eleven seasons, for a total of seven titles in thirteen years..

During these years, the SPHAS took advantage of the ABL’s winter break to go on tour in the Midwest. An opportunity to promote basketball and bring in a little more wheat, but also to keep players in shape. However, these trips are not transmitted so much the boxes. So much so that some members of the workforce question their merits. Gottlieb’s answer is clear:

“We are not here to make money. We are pioneers for the future of the basket.

[1945etlafindelaguerremarquentlafindeladynastiedesSPHASmalgré une ultime apparition en finale en 1946. Date qui coïncide avec l’arrivée de la BAA et le début du déclin de l’équipe hébraïque.

Face à la puissance financière de cette nouvelle ligue qui accapare une grande partie de l’agenda du patron Eddie Gottlieb, l’ABL suit aussi cette pente glissante qui mène à son arrêt en 1949. Les SPHAS ne sont alors plus qu’une équipe de barnstorming, qui joue les faire-valoir des Harlem Globetrotters. Mais cette fin moins glorieuse ne doit cependant pas faire oublier l’impact des SPHAS.

Un symbole face à l’antisémitisme

Au milieu des années trente, alors que la montée de l’antisémitisme en Europe se répercute aussi aux États-Unis, les SPHAS ont procuré de la fierté à leur communauté. À l’instar des Black Fives pour les Afro-américains, les SPHAS sont des héros pour la communauté hébraïque. Quand des millions de Juifs vivent la persécution et sont envoyés dans des camps de concentration de l’autre côté de l’Océan Atlantique, ils arborent avec fierté l’étoile de David sur leur maillot floqué du SPHA en hébreux.

Si cela ne fait pas diminuer l’hostilité des foules au gré des tournées ou des matchs à l’extérieur pour autant, cette volonté illustre parfaitement l’état d’esprit des SPHAS. Dans leur tête, ils ne jouent pas que pour eux, mais bien pour les leurs aux États-Unis et en Europe. Une ambiance “nous contre le reste du monde” qui leur apporte un supplément d’âme. Elle leur donne le courage de garder la tête haute. Habitués depuis leur plus tendre enfance à se faire humilier et insulter, ils ont réussi à s’intégrer grâce au panier. Quand dans la rue, la question raciale ou religieuse passe bien après le niveau sur le terrain. Alors au moment présent de rendre les coups, ils répondent.

Mais dans le monde pro, quand on se déplace et qu’une audience déchaînée semble vouloir votre peau, ce n’est pas le même délire. Il ne faut pas flancher. Continuer de mettre à mal le préjugé d’une faiblesse juive en s’imposant sur les parquets dans cet environnement hostile. Ce qu’ils font, jusqu’à leur déclin qui a abouti à plusieurs causes, outre l’arrivée de la BAA.

Dans les années quarante, la démographie américaine bouge. Les Juifs désertent les villes pour la banlieue. Ils laissent de côté par la même occasion le basket comme principale source de divertissement. Les Afro-américains prennent le pouvoir sur les playgrounds, eux qui débarquent depuis plusieurs années dans les grandes villes du nord pour fuir les États sudistes et les lois Jim Crow. L’effectif des SPHAS connaît aussi cette évolution. Même si les Juifs restent la base de l’équipe, ils ne viennent plus de Philadelphie. Plutôt de New York pour faciliter les nombreux matchs qui se jouent à Big Apple. L’attachement communautaire persiste, mais il est moins ancré localement. Et comme Gottlieb à d’autres chats à fouetter, les SPHAS en pâtissent.

plaque commémorative du taf fourni par les SPHAS et Eddie Gottlieb

Pendant deux décennies, les SPHAS ont été le symbole de la communauté juive sur un terrain de basket. Plus que cela, leur histoire illustre parfaitement la vie des équipes dites communautaires qui ont rythmé la première moitié du vingtième siècle. Des formations nées dans les quartiers, pour lesquelles la fierté d’appartenir à un groupe était un moteur de vie et d’intégration.

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