Jewish Youth Basketball League Hopes to Recapture SPHAS’ Glory Days

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Mickey Black pointing to his grandfather, Hughie, in picture. Photo by Jon Marks
Mickey Black pointing to his grandfather, Hughie, in picture. Photo by Jon Marks

As a kid growing up in Abington, Mickey Black would always hear the stories from his grandfather.

He’d hear about these Jewish ballplayers from South Philadelphia and other parts of the city who played the game better than anybody. He’d hear how they put up with all sorts of anti-Semitic comments when they played out of town, but how when they were at home it was a night out for the entire family.

The game would be followed by a dance on the same floor so everybody in the community could feel a part of things.

Now he’s trying to recreate that same concept — at a site not too far from where that all took place. He’s trying to honor the legacy of his grandfather, Edwin “Hughie” Black, one of the original players for the SPHAS (South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), Philadelphia’s first professional basketball team. He’s doing it by bringing back a revamped version of the Jewish Youth Basketball League (JYBL).

Things get underway Jan. 29 at 2 p.m. at Julia R. Masterman School, 1699 Spring Garden St. The league is open to all boys and girls, Jews and non-Jews alike, from fifth to seventh grades.

“My father would tell me about going to games at the Broadwood Hotel, where he was a vendor and would watch my grandfather play,” explained the 64-year-old Black, director of Pine Forest Camp in the Poconos, which was founded by his grandfather in 1931. “It was fun and kind of romantic that the Philadelphia Jewish community could have sports, followed by music, followed by dancing.

“Such a happy, vibrant memory of Jewish Philadelphia. The idea that this is close to that spot is a nice remembrance.”

Yet Black has no illusions his fledgling league will be anything like it was for the SPHAS, who won 10 Eastern League titles in the 1930s and ’40s before the NBA came into existence. He simply sees it as an opportunity for Jewish kids in the community to play hoops — just like their dads and grandfathers did ages ago.

“This is kids getting together to play on a Sunday afternoon,” said Black, who has a 1960 picture of himself and his father taken with a former Pine Forest employee named Wilt Chamberlain. “It has nothing to do with the SPHAS.

“They may not care, but I’d like to explain to them they’re descendants of a famous championship athletic legacy. In its essence, it’s Jewish kids and Jewish families getting together around sports.

“It would be kind of nice to think there’s a next generation three generations after my grandfather who’ll be playing basketball. If this becomes the beginning of that, the seed of the rebirth of Jewish sports in Center City Philadelphia, which would be cool.”

SPHAS sign across from the Packard Motor Car Building. Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD/Wikipedia
SPHAS sign across from the Packard Motor Car Building. Jerrye and Roy Klotz, MD/Wikipedia

Grandpa Hughie, the SPHAS’ first captain, who lived to 95, would heartily approve, too, his grandson said.

“He was always a very active, athletic guy,” Black said. “He’d tell me about how they played the game and moved the ball around a lot.

“They took two-handed set shots, didn’t dunk the ball and not many fouls were called. He’d tell me about the anti-Semitism when they would go to small towns in Pennsylvania, and people would yell things at them about being ‘dirty Jews.’ And sometimes there were fistfights.

“But what I loved was that fact they had this logo with the Mogen David, the Star of David, and rays coming out of it. They were proud of being Jewish.”

In tribute, the JYBL will give out T-shirts with that same logo to participants. So far, only a few kids have committed to the league, though Black is hopeful more will join once word spreads.

Longtime Abington Friends School coach and Pine Forest Athletic Director Steve Chadwin, a 2014 inductee into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, will be in charge, teaching fundamentals and helping organize scrimmages — assuming enough kids turn out.

“I hope it’s fun and then grows over the years so it could be a real place for people not only to play basketball but for families to socialize because that’s kind of what the Broadwood and the SPHAS were all about,” said Black, who attends Congregation Adath Jeshurun in Elkins Park. “My grandfather would be thrilled.”

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