At a time when the NBA’s reputation has been tarnished by the racist rants of one of its team owners, Donald Sterling, an illustrious voice from its golden past may help add some much-needed luster to its image.
The Mogul is getting his moment in the sun.
The fact that that moment comes 35 years after the death of Philly’s own Eddie “The Mogul” Gottlieb — one of the seminal figures in all of professional basketball — adds special poignancy to an upcoming ceremony marking the man who added a decidedly Jewish spin to the sport as founder, player and coach of the legendary SPHAS — the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association team that banged the boards at the old Broadwood Hotel in Center City during the ’40s.
Gottlieb will be commemorated for his many achievements — including being a founding father of the NBA — with the installation of a double-sided marker, to be dedicated on Wednesday, May 21, at 11 a.m., outside South Philadelphia High School at Broad Street and Snyder Avenue, where Gottlieb played on the school team in 1914 — 100 years ago.
But if he is at the center of the upcoming event, it is an outsider — a forward-thinking woman who is not Jewish and has never seen a professional game played — who is ensuring that Gottlieb will be remembered for his luminous legacy. Celeste Morello is the event’s team captain, an historian who believes in the lore and lure of the past and has wanted and worked hard for some time to make sure Gottlieb got his due.
And the NBA, according to Morello, shares her enthusiasm for Gottlieb as net prophet. The league is paying for the marker and is also scheduled to have representatives at the dedication.
The man being saluted was no weekend Warrior — he devoted his life to the sport, including owning and coaching the Philadelphia Warriors for 16 years beginning in 1946.
Gottlieb’s landmark achievements more than merit the marker, asserted Morello, citing his importance as chair of the NBA rules committee and other major league work in which he was involved. “He took the sport and elevated it to a professional level,” she said.
“There wouldn’t have been a Wilt Chamberlain” — arguably the greatest basketball player of all time — “had it not been for Gottlieb” drafting the 7 foot-plus Overbrook High star out of the University of Kansas and bringing him back home, where his unique brand of play broke basketball conventions, she said.
His efforts were recognized by his membership in the Basketball Hall of Fame, the International Basketball Hall of Fame and the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
But Morello wanted more: “I want the Jewish people to know about their” heritage, said Morello. “The Jews are so underrepresented in being acknowledged for all they have done for the city.”
In light of the Sterling scandal, it is refreshing to reconsider the legacy of a businessman breaking through the biases of the time, hiring one of the few African-American players (Jackie Moore, 1954-57) in the league. He was “clean,” a figure not besmirched by scandals, and he brought an honesty to the game, reflected Philadelphia sports writer/authority Rich Westcott, author of the 2008 book, The Mogul: Eddie Gottlieb, Philadelphia Sports Legend and Pro Basketball Pioneer.
Gottlieb was not only involved in basketball, asserted Westcott, but was co-owner of baseball’s Philadelphia Stars of the Negro National League and he also promoted wrestling.
“But it always came back to basketball,” he said.
Gottlieb may have been born in Kiev 1898 but he developed an exceptional commitment to his new hometown. More than anything, Westcott said, “he was a Philly guy.”