The Philadelphia Sphas, also written SPHAs and SPHAS, were a team that competed in the Eastern Basketball League and then the American Basketball League. They played their home games in social halls and, from 1938, in the ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel. After World War II they also played some games in the Philadelphia Arena.
The name "Spha" was originally an acronym, derived from South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, and naturally the team's players were primarily Jewish. Many pundits of the time tried to explain this on the basis of genetics, stating that Jews were naturally more dexterous, had better rhythm, and more intrinsic athletic ability, exactly the same sort of comments that would later be made about basketball with regard to African Americans in later years. At times writers used more specifically (and derogatory) Jewish stereotypes: Paul Gallico stated that they did well because "the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind". The team was doomed once the National Basketball Association was formed and the owner of the Sphas got an NBA franchise (the Philadelphia Warriors) for the same arena. Essentially, the NBA destroyed the following of the entire league, which did not compete after 1953 although it did not formally cease to exist until 1955.
The Sphas were organized in 1917 as an amateur team by Eddie Gottlieb (Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame honoree), Harry Passon, and Hughie Black shortly after their high school graduation. Always a team of considerable prowess whether the competition was amateur or professional, from 1933 to 1946 the Sphas were the most dominant team in the professional American Basketball League (ABL), capturing 7 league championships in 13 seasons.
Called the Sphas because the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association bought the players uniforms, the team featured many eastern U.S. top college graduates, including Harry Litwack (IJSHOF honoree), Asher, Cy Kasselman, Davey Banks, Moe Goldman (ABL MVP 1937–38), Shiky Gotthofer, Mendy Snyder, Irv Torgoff, Red Wolfe, Max Posnack, Gil Fitch, Jerry Fleishman and many others. All but a few Sphas players were Jewish during the club's many years of amateur and professional existence.Originally an independent team sponsored by the Young Men's Hebrew Association (YMHA), the players found a new home in 1921 at the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association when the YMHA withdrew its sponsorship. Soon, their local skills earned them a spot in the Philadelphia League, where they won two consecutive championships, after which the league disbanded. The Sphas then joined the Eastern League for 1925–26, but it went out of business that same season.
Refusing to keep his team idle, owner-coach Gottlieb, the consummate basketball entrepreneur, promoted a series of exhibition games against leading pro teams from New York's Metropolitan League and the new ABL, then in its first year of operation. When the Sphas won five of six games, losing only to the ABL's top team, the Cleveland Rosenblums, Gottlieb arranged for best-of-three series against both the Original Celtics and the New York Renaissance (an all-Black team). The Sphas defeated the fabled Celtics in three games, and the Rens twice by scores of 36–33 in overtime and 40–39. Within approximately six weeks, the minor league Sphas had won 9 of 11 matches against the most celebrated teams in professional basketball.
When the Eastern League found new life in 1929, the Sphas once again joined its ranks, winning three championships in four seasons. This success led to an invitation from the newly reorganized ABL, which had been dormant for two Depression years.
In 1933, the Sphas were Eddie Gottlieb's ABL franchise entry. The team promptly captured three League championships in four years, eventually winning seven titles in 13 years (1933–34, 1935–36, 1936–37, 1939–40, 1940–41, 1942–43, 1944–45), and they were runners-up twice. The team's uniform tops featured samach, pey, hey, and aleph—Hebrew letters spelling Sphas—and a Jewish star. In case opponents or spectators did not understand, the back of the team's road uniforms said "Hebrews"!
In 1946, following World War II, the Basketball Association of America, forerunner of the NBA, debuted, and the ABL ceased to be a major league. With Gottlieb establishing the Philadelphia Warriors as his BAA franchise, his Sphas continued with the minor league ABL and as a touring opponent of the Harlem Globetrotters. Gottlieb sold the team in 1950 to former Sphas star Red Klotz, who retired the old name of the Globetrotters' regular opponents, replacing them with the Washington Generals.
|1925/26||EBL||3rd (1st half); 1st (2nd half)||No playoff|
|1929/30||EBL||2nd (1st half); 1st (2nd half)||Champion|
|1930/31||EBL||1st (1st half); 2nd (2nd half)||Champion|
|1931/32||EBL||2nd (1st half); 1st (2nd half)||Champion|
|1932/33||EBL||1st (1st half); 3rd (2nd half)||Finals|
|1933/34||ABL||3rd (1st half); 1st (2nd half)||Champion|
|1934/35||ABL||2nd (1st half); 1st(t) (2nd half)||2nd Half Playoff|
|1935/36||ABL||1st (1st half); 5th (2nd half)||Champion|
|1936/37||ABL||2nd (1st half); 1st (2nd half)||Champion|
|1937/38||ABL||4th (1st half); 3rd (2nd half)||Did not qualify|
|1939/40||ABL||1st(t)||Champion (Round Robin)|
|1940/41||ABL||1st (1st half); 4th (2nd half)||Champion|
|1941/42||ABL||2nd (1st half); 3rd (2nd half)||No playoff|
|1943/44||ABL||4th (1st half); 1st (2nd half)||Finals|
|1946/47||ABL||2nd, Southern||2nd Round|
|1947/48||ABL||6th||Did not qualify|
|1948/49||ABL||8th||Did not qualify|