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

  • Review
By – August 23, 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.


Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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