The name "Spha" was originally an acronym, derived from South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, and 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.
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"!