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.
The Sphas were organized in 1917 as an amateur team by neighborhood friends Eddie Gottlieb, Harry Passon, and Hughie Black after their high school graduation. From 1933 to 1946 the Sphas were among the most dominant team in the professional American Basketball League (ABL), winning seven league championships in 13 seasons.
Refusing to keep his team idle, owner-coach Gottlieb promoted a series of exhibition games against leading professional teams from New York's Metropolitan League and the new ABL, 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. The Sphas defeated the Celtics in three games, and the Rens twice, 36–33 in overtime and 40–39. Within approximately six weeks, the Sphas had won 9 of 11 matches against the top teams in professional basketball.
When the Eastern League reformed in 1929, the Sphas joined its ranks and won three championships in four seasons. This led to an invitation from the newly reorganized ABL, dormant for two Depression years, which the Sphas joined for 1933. The team captured three League championships in four years, and would win seven titles in 13 years, and were twice runners-up. 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.