Earlier this week, Douglas Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team ever and about researching Jewish sports. He has been blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
To me, history is telling stories about people. I have always been fascinated by people’s lives, the decisions they make (or don’t), and ultimately what happens to them. One of my objectives in writing The SPHAS was to have an opportunity to tell the stories of the players and, in some cases, the fans who attended the games. Who were the SPHAS? Where did they come from? Why were they attracted to basketball? Who were they as people?
As I crafted the book, I decided that I would try and tell the story of each season through one or two players. This allowed me to combine the stories of the players with the game-by-game story and drama of each season. It also proved a fairly easy way to organize the book.
One of the challenges of writing a book about a defunct basketball team whose heyday was in the 1930s and early 1940s was that most of the players had either passed away or were very old. I had two paths to take. One was to interview family members of the players from the 1930s. The second was to speak with players who played in the 1940s. Both proved invaluable.
The family members of the 1930s players were able to provide information about who the players were as people and about their childhoods. But in many instances, they were unable to talk about the playing days. Some were too young to remember. Some maybe never asked. However, many of them had scrapbooks of articles and these proved to be a tremendous source of information. Athletes from a certain generation actively kept scrapbooks chronicling their careers. The articles, programs, and ticket stubs contain valuable information. Athletes today do not seem to have the same desire in maintaining scrapbooks.
I was also able to interview quite a few players from the 1940s, and, although they might forget some information, they all loved talking about their playing days. Their faces light up and they can recall a game 70 years ago better than what they had for dinner last week. As they talked, they were young again, playing basketball, traveling 5 or 6 in a car from one town to another, and growing the game.
They all had interesting stories to tell and seemed grateful that someone today wanted to hear their stories. It was my honor to tell their stories and I hope that I did it well.
Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available.
On Monday, Doug Stark wrote about the best Jewish basketball team ever. His new book, The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, is now available.
Writing a book about a Jewish basketball team that had not played a meaningful game in nearly seventy years posed some challenges. The Philadelphia SPHAS were a great basketball team, but by the end of World War II, their best days were behind them. They were no longer significant players in the basketball world. So, I asked myself some questions. How do you find information about a team that no longer exists? Are any of the players still alive? Does anyone still remember them?
As I began working on this book, I realized that I needed to assemble a research plan. I figured newspapers would be a good start. Philadelphia had several papers such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Record and I felt both would be helpful. But I wanted to see what was written in the cities of their opponents. How was the team covered on the road? What was press coverage like in opposing cities? I then began tracking down newspapers in Boston, New York, New Jersey, Wilmington, Baltimore, Washington and many cities in the Midwest where they traveled. In addition to the mainstream press, I also targeted the Jewish press to see if the team was covered.
Over the course of several years, I spent many long and lonely hours in front of microfilm machines finding articles and scores. Unfortunately, none of the newspapers I needed were digitized, so I was manually cranking the microfilm reader.
Throughout the course of using the newspapers I learned a few things. The SPHAS and professional basketball were covered by the mainstream press. Some cities did it better than others, but basketball was covered. At that time, basketball was not the most predominant sport but it did receive coverage.
Philadelphia newspapers covered the SPHAS extremely well. That was partially due to team manager Eddie Gottlieb and his relationship with the newspapers and local reporters. When the SPHAS played at home, the Philadelphia newspapers gave ample coverage, often with a good-size article and the box score. When the SPHAS played on the road, the wire service would provide a brief write-up, maybe a few paragraphs. A box score was usually included.
Unlike today, however, the articles had no quotes. They were simply write-ups of the games. They were extremely descriptive, and in some cases would go play-by-play or point-by-point. The writing style was different and reporters embellished the action and gave you a sense of what was happening. The lack of quotes did not give any first-hand accounts of the games and drama unfolding.
I also learned that the Jewish press did not cover basketball too much. Baseball with Hank Greenberg, boxing with Barney Ross, and basketball with Nat Holman received the only sports press. Surprisingly,the SPHAS were not covered by Jewish newspapers.
Despite some of the challenges and omissions, the newspapers proved to be a great source of information about the SPHAS and professional basketball during the 1920s to 1940s.
Douglas Stark’s The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning‘s Author Blog.
When I told friends and colleagues that I was researching and writing a book about a Jewish basketball team, I was often met with a hesitation or a stunned look. Why are you writing a book? Well, many people write books, I would often answer, and I wanted to take a crack at it myself.
No, the most common questions were the following: Did Jews play basketball? Was it a professional team? Was the team good? The answer is yes, yes, and most definitely yes.
Most sports fans today, whether they are serious or casual, hardly see any Jews participating at the highest level. But, Jews were an important part of the early history of sports in America, particularly basketball. Invented in 1891, basketball spread quickly and was soon played in YMCAs and gyms throughout the country. One place where basketball caught on immediately was urban areas.
At the turn of the twentieth century, cities in the Northeast were dominated by immigrants, particularly Jews. Jews left a difficult life in Eastern Europe and immigrated to the United States where they settled in cities. Their lives were often difficult in this new country and many parents worked all the time to provide for their children. Conversely, these children were interested in becoming American and one way to do so was through sports.
Living in urban areas and tenements did not leave many options for sports. Neighborhoods and apartments were crowded. There were no ball fields to play baseball. But there was this new game of basketball. It did not require much, a ball and a peach basket. It was easy to improvise. One could roll up rags or newspapers to substitute for a ball. A post with a basket or the fire escape ladder could serve as a basket.
With that, basketball began in urban areas. Before long, Jews were participating and basketball was quickly becoming a Jewish game. Soon the game spread to Philadelphia, and in 1918, a group of high school friends wanted to keep playing after graduation. So they formed a team, which was named the SPHAS, the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, after the association gave them uniforms in exchange for publicity. Little did they know, but their team would still be playing four decades later before ceasing operations in 1959.
Of all the Jewish basketball players and teams, none could match the SPHAS. They were simply the best Jewish basketball team. The team’s heyday was from 1933-1946 which coincided with a Depression, rise of anti-Semitism, and a World War. They played at the same time that Hank Greenberg was one of baseball’s best players, and Barney Ross was boxing’s top draw.
The SPHAS won 7 titles in thirteen years in the American Basketball League (1933-1946), which was the top professional basketball league in the country. They traveled across the East, South and Midwest, and the players challenged racial stereotypes of weakness and inferiority as they boosted the game’s popularity. In the 1950s, the team traveled with the famed Harlem Globetrotters. Their legacy was tremendous as they helped grow the game to what we know today.
When I reflect on those questions I received from friends five years ago, I could not have imagined the journey it took to write the book. And I can say with confidence, that Jews played basketball and the SPHAS were the greatest Jewish basketball team ever.