The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team

Temple University Press  2011

Sports have been a major avenue of social mobility as well as an entry into the American mainstream for American ethnic groups. This was especially true for first- and second-generation Jews residing between the world wars in inner-city Jewish neighborhoods such as the West Side of Chicago, Brownsville-East New York in Brooklyn, and South Philadelphia. Of America’s games, basketball was the most popular. Basketball is the quintessential “urban game” and was the sport of choice on the playground and in Jewish community centers during the 1920’s and 30’s.

The most famous Jewish basketball team of this era was the SPHAS. The SPHAS were named for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, a social club which for a brief period provided its uniforms. American Jewish sports fans, noting the Hebrew lettering on its uniforms and its fine record, kvelled over the SPHAS, just as they kvelled over Jewish boxers and major league baseball players. During its glory years, the SPHAS won seven championships in the thirteen seasons it played in the American Basketball League, a predecessor of the National Basketball Association. By the 1950’s, however, the SPHAS had degenerated into an embarrassing punching bag for the Harlem Globetrotters.

The team’s interesting history, now well chronicled by Douglas Stark, the director of the museum of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island, stretched from its founding in 1918 until its demise in 1959. By that time upward social and economic mobility and suburbanization had diminished the appeal of basketball to young Jews. Sports fans will enjoy Stark’s volume, particularly its biographies of the SPHAS players, but specialists in American Jewry will be disappointed by its failure to delve more deeply into what the history of the SPHAS says about the evolution of American Jewry.

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