Jerry Rullo, a guard on the SPHAS basketball team, has spent most of his life in South Philadelphia, where the team has become part of local lore but not nearly as famous as many people thought it should be.
On April 14, Rullo, 86, joined basketball notables and family members of former players to rectify the team’s relative absence from basketball and Jewish history. They came together at Broad and Wood Streets for the dedication of a historical marker.
“They introduced basketball in Philadelphia,” said Rullo, who joined the SPHAS after World War II , one of the few players who wasn’t Jewish.
The marker dedication — at the site of the old Broadwood Hotel, where the team had its home court — was one of several developments to put the SPHAS in the spotlight this week.
Later the same day, Douglas Stark who spent five years working on the first true history of the squad and who was instrumental in pushing for the historical marker, ventured south along Broad Street to the Wells Fargo Center for a game between the 76ers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The game, which marked Jewish Heritage Night at the Sixers, featured the Israeli-born Cavs player, Omri Casspi.
There, in a pre-game ceremony on the court, Joshua Hersz, director of marketing for the Jewish Exponent, presented Stark with a plaque in recognition of his contribution to Jewish literature for his book, The SPHAS: The Life and Times of Basketball’s Greatest Jewish Team, which was published two years ago.
In addition, a new children’s book on the subject by a local author has just been published.
The team was notable not only for its on-court success — during one stretch, they won seven championships in 13 years, while playing against storied teams such as the New York Renaissance and the Original Celtics — but also for its ability to compete while ignoring fierce anti-Semitism during much of its existence from 1918 until 1959.
“They played in a lot of bad neighborhoods and they had tough times because they took a lot of ribbing and they hung in there,” Rullo said of his Jewish teammates.
At the dedication ceremony in Center City, Stark was joined by Philadelphia City Councilman Kenyatta Johnson; former 76ers president Lou Scheinfeld; Sonny Hill, known as Mr. Basketball around Philadelphia; and Lynn Sherr, the broadcast journalist whose father Louis “Reds” Sherr starred on the team in its early years.
Sherr, 61, said playing for the SPHAS helped her father earn a basketball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania, which he otherwise might not have been able to attend. She grew up listening to him and former teammates around her house trading stories about their playing days.
Her father, who went on to play for the Philadelphia Warriors, rarely talked about the anti-Semitism he faced, but Sherr has reviewed articles from the time that leave no doubt about how Jewish players were treated.
“The articles make it so clear that anti-Semitism was rampant, but they just moved on and kept playing,” she said.
Sherr traveled from New York, along with a sister, and said a highlight of the dedication was meeting former players’ family members who traveled from as far as North Carolina for the dedication. She said the SPHAS have been overlooked by history, perhaps because their home venue was in Philadelphia, not New York.
“It’s always amazing to me that people don’t know basketball orignally was a Jewish sport,” she told the Jewish Exponent after the event.
The fast-paced action of present-day basketball as played by teams like the 76ers and the Cleveland Cavaliers looks much different from the game the SPHAS first started playing. In the 1920s, matches were low scoring, slow and physical, and featured jump balls after each basket. Stark said the Philadelphia team helped transform the sport into an exciting, fast-paced game filled with passing and more scoring.
“In many ways, they helped grow professional basketball to the game we know today,” he said.
The team was formed after World War I by a few Philadelphia Jewish players who wanted to continue competing beyond high school, Stark said. In the 1920s, the SPHAS were a club team before joining the American Basketball League and enjoying a dominant run from 1933 to 1946. After World War II, the team became a traveling squad with the Harlem Globetrotters, who were a huge draw at that time.
Several of the people connected with the team had a significant impact on the growth of basketball as an American pastime. Eddie Gottlieb, the owner and coach of the SPHAS, was a founding member of the NBA and coached the Philadelphia Warriors and is a member of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. Red Klotz played for the SPHAS before going on to found the Washington Generals, the team long paid to serve as doormats for the Globetrotters’ high-flying victories.
Stark said he first learned about the SPHAS while working at the basketball Hall of Fame and discovered that there had been little written about them. He said a possible reason for their lack of recognition might be the misconception that the SPHAS were just a regional team, even though they actually traveled all over the country.
“I realized that this was an important gap, not only in basketball history but in Jewish history,” said Stark, who serves as museum director at the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I. His next goal is to get the team inducted into the basketball hall of fame.