Before professional basketball players squared off inside state-of-the art arenas, earned millions of dollars and had a wide-ranging fan base, Eddie Gottlieb was on a mission to raise the profile of the game in the American consciousness — and then make it a success.
Taking on assorted roles, such as player, coach, owner and promoter, Gottlieb repositioned Philadelphia pro ball from the small auditoriums that housed his South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team in the 1920s and '30s to the large venues, where sizable crowds could watch Wilt Chamberlain and the Philadelphia Warriors in the 1950s. He even co-founded the Basketball Association of America, a precursor to the National Basketball Association.
In the 1920s and '30s — when Jews were not often accepted outside of their own neighborhoods — Gottlieb and the SPHAS (a winning team made up entirely of Jews) helped give the community a sense of pride, according to a new biography.
"He became a pillar in the Jewish community. He was a hero," said Rich Westcott, who wrote The Mogul, a biography of Gottlieb due out next month from Temple University Press. "He did a lot for the Jewish community in terms of recognition and social consciousness."
Westcott, who is not Jewish, researched Gottlieb's story for two years. He described the early days of the sport as a "Jewish man's game," a phenomenon that lasted until the early 1940s.
With a SPHAS game drawing an almost entirely Jewish crowd, Gottlieb held dances right after many of the contests. While the parents of young Jewish girls normally forbade their daughters to go to dances, exceptions tended to be made if it was held after a SPHAS game.
A Real Character
The author described Gottlieb as a "character," who once was so upset about losing a game with the SPHAS that he poured iodine on the back of his shirt. At a restaurant later that night, he removed his jacket and told team members, "You stabbed me in the back!"
When Gottlieb ran the show, basketball was hardly the streamlined business operation of today, with each team having a front office and a payroll department. In his day, Gottlieb paid players out of his own pocket. "After the game, he would dish out money to the players," said Westcott. "He would take each player into the men's room separately and pay him. They didn't write checks in those days — it was all cash deals."
Unlike the modern era of owners who are millionaires or even billionaires, Gottlieb did not have much money to get his various business ventures off the ground. He relied instead on being frugal and making sound financial decisions, like accounting for every dollar and knowing the attendance at every game, according to the book.
"He didn't have a lot. He was not a wealthy guy," explained Westcott. "He was very mindful of money and very watchful over it."
Gottlieb first made big money in 1963, when he sold the Warriors for $850,000 (he'd bought the team for $25,000).
The businessman also stretched his influence into baseball, where he was the owner of the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro League and served as a booking agent for amateur games. He even spent some time promoting pro wrestling.
Getting a glimpse inside Gottlieb's personal life proved more of a challenge because he never married, had no children and died in 1979, said Westcott. In writing the book, he relied heavily on researching news stories and interviewing former players, coaches and members of the media.
"He just didn't have time to get married," said Westcott, who noted that Gottlieb had a longtime girlfriend who lived in New York.
His greatest triumph, according to the author, came as the owner of the Warriors in 1959, when he drafted one of the greatest players of all time, Wilt Chamberlain.
Wrangling the 7-foot-1-inch Chamberlain away from the rest of the professional teams was no easy task. Gottlieb lobbied the league to introduce a rule change in the NBA draft that allowed teams to sign high school players from their particular areas. Since Chamberlain played for Overbrook High School, it allowed Gottlieb to eventually draft him onto the Warriors.
"Wilt just revolutionized the whole style of play for centers and, in so doing, changed the whole game," said Westcott. "For my money, he was the greatest player in basketball history — and [Gottlieb] got 'em."