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Eddie Gottlieb

Eddie Gottlieb, the sports-mad immigrant son of Jewish-Ukrainian parents devoted his whole adult life to the support of the Philadelphia Jewish community and to the playing, coaching, and promotion of American team sports, particularly basketball. His role in the formation and growth of what would become the National Basketball Association and his stewardship of the Philadelphia Warriors would earn him such nicknames as “The Mogul,” and “Mr. Basketball,” and make him an inner circle Hall of Famer.

He was born Isadore Gottlieb, on May 15, 1898, in Kiev, Ukraine, then a part of the Russian Empire, to parents Morris and Lena. His family, including an older sister, Bella, emigrated to the United States in 1902, settling in Philadelphia. His father operated a candy store there but died when “Izzy” was just nine. At some point, “Izzy” evolved into “Eddie”, and the bright young lad soon showed a consuming interest in sports. He played baseball, basketball, and football at South Philadelphia High School then spent three years teaching physical education at a public school following his studies at the Philadelphia School of Pedagogy.

By 1918 he was already showing his organizational skills acting as secretary and schedule maker for the Manufacturers’ (baseball) League while playing catcher for a team sponsored by the Becker, Smith, and Page wallpaper firm. He had also been an assistant coach for a local basketball team when he and some friends approached the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association with a deal. Not able to afford the club’s dues, they offered to run the association’s basketball team in exchange for membership. An agreement was reached, and the Philadelphia Sphas were born. In those early days, he coached and played guard, leading the squad to the championship of the Philadelphia Cage League, while managing their baseball team in the summer.

With the boundless energy of youth, he also had a role in the operation of the Philadelphia Baseball Association, a twilight league, and formed his own team, the All-Phillies. The loop eventually evolved into the Philadelphia Baseball League, the city’s top semi-pro circuit, with Gottlieb as its president from at least 1932 until its demise in 1942 due to restrictions on artificial lighting during World War II. His primary focus, in those days, though, was basketball and the Sphas. The nickname taken from the acronym of its sponsor, the team was one of the top professional clubs in the country almost from its inception. Basketball teams in that era were often organized around ethnicity and the Sphas were not shy about their Jewish heritage, putting the letters SPHA on their jerseys in the Hebrew language. During his nearly thirty-year tenure as coach of the Sphas, Gottlieb led the team to twelve league championships, first in local Philadelphia associations, later in the Eastern Basketball League, and finally in the American Basketball League, one of the top national circuits prior to the creation of the NBA.

By the 1930s he was recognized as one of the leading figures in Philadelphia sports, joining Connie Mack and others in support of a Sunday sports bill that was finally approved in 1933. While he put most of his effort into the Sphas and twilight baseball, prompting one writer to call him the “Judge Landis of semi-pro baseball and basketball”, he also found time to promote Negro League baseball in his city. His investment in the Philadelphia Stars, an independent squad run by Black promoter Ed Bolden, kept the team afloat during the Depression. The team joined the Negro National League shortly after Gottlieb’s entry and won a championship in 1934. He would continue to promote Black baseball in Philadelphia until the early 1950s.

Gottlieb spent his years as Sphas coach refining his skills and putting together ever more formidable teams, preferring the “finesse” game over the violent tactics that had developed when the game was still played in cages. He was particularly adept at analyzing an opponent’s game plan and exploiting the weak points he found.

Though he had bought ownership of the team from the SPHA early on, he stayed active within the Jewish community. In 1939 he was named president of the Jewish Basketball League Alumni Association, a group dedicated to the support and celebration of local Jewish players. He would hold that position until his death and his name was on the JBL’s most prestigious award, given to the young player most likely to make it to pro ball.

At the end of World War II a group of arena owners in the East and Midwest, looking to expand their revenue sources, formed a new major league basketball organization, the Basketball Association of America, and when it came time to choose a coach for the Philadelphia entry, there was only one man for the job.

At first, Gottlieb planned to retain his position as coach of the Sphas while also acting as coach and assistant general manager for the new team, named the Warriors, but he soon resigned from that post while retaining ownership. With a roster that included some former Sphas stars, the Warriors overcame early season sluggishness to become the league’s first champions, beating Chicago in five games in the finals. In addition to coaching the team, he was also the league’s schedule maker and a member of the rules committee. He had a role in nearly every aspect of the game and it was often said that carried his office with him wherever he went, with game plans, contracts, and money in his pants pockets and a list of important phone numbers tucked into his hat band.

The Warriors would not repeat as champions and by the end of the decade they were also-rans, missing the playoffs in 1950, a first for a Gottlieb-coached team since 1926. However, he worked as hard as ever, and in 1952 he, along with Harlem Globetrotters owner Abe Saperstein and others, bought the team from the Arena Corporation of Philadelphia. It was around this time that the “Mogul” nickname regularly began to appear in print.

Despite the change in ownership the team’s fortunes didn’t improve. Since he owned the team, Gottlieb’s status as coach wasn’t in danger, but in February 1955 he underwent gall bladder surgery, putting him out of the action for more than a month. Original Warrior player and former Spha George Senesky manned the bench for the remainder of the season in his absence. Nominally, Gottlieb returned as coach for the 1955-56 campaign, but in December he announced that Senesky had been, in fact, coaching the team all along and Gottlieb officially stepped down at the age of 57. Under Senesky’s tutelage, the Warriors won their second championship that season, beating Fort Wayne in the finals.

The Warriors continued to be competitive over the next several seasons, but attendance was poor. Hoping to spark enthusiasm, Gottlieb used Machiavellian tactics to change a league rule giving him signing rights to Philadelphia-born phenom Wilt Chamberlain and inked him to the largest contract in league history. Disagreements over the advisability of signing the 7’1” center led to Saperstein selling his share of the team back to Gottlieb.

Though Chamberlain was an instant hit it was plain that Gottlieb was unsatisfied with the team’s profitability and rumors of a sale began to appear. Idle gossip about a move had appeared on occasion over the years, but the tales were now taken more seriously. In 1960 Gottlieb had to deny stories that a move to Los Angeles or New Orleans was imminent and a year later there was talk that a local group would buy the team from him. This was accompanied by rumblings behind the scenes that suggested his meddling in coaching affairs was actively contributing to the team’s mediocrity and scaring better coaching prospects away entirely.

Early in 1962 a San Francisco group offered him $800,000 for the team and this time he was ready to take it. He needed league approval, though, and at first, it was not forthcoming. Talk was that Gottlieb was pushing the league to award him a new Philadelphia franchise following the sale, but that was a non-starter. Finally, following a league meeting in May that involved heated exchanges between Gottlieb, Ned Irish of the Knicks, and Red Auerbach of the Celtics, a deal was approved. A different group, headed by radio and television producer Franklin Mieuli, agreed to pay Gottlieb $850,000 for the team and move it to San Francisco. Part of the deal included Gottlieb staying on for a year as general manager to ease the transition.

When the team performed poorly in its first season in the Bay Area, Gottlieb bought back a 30 percent share of the team from New York investors who were part of Mieuli’s group and agreed to stay on an additional year with the new title of managing director for the 1963-64 season. He later said he had stayed the extra year out of guilt and when the team made the 1964 NBA Finals, losing to the Celtics, he decided he had done enough, sold most of his share back to Mieuli, and returned to Philadelphia.

He was no longer associated with a team, but he was still a major cog in the operation of the league. He was given a lifetime spot on the NBA’s Board of Governors and was still single-handedly creating the playing schedule each year, using his unmatched knowledge of arena requirements and team preferences, performing his work on stacks of yellow legal pads, not napkins as was often suggested. When the ABA arrived, offering big stacks of cash to college stars entering the pro game, he played an important role in convincing many of those stars to go with the more established league.

Through all these years, Gottlieb never married. Upon reaching adulthood, he and his sister had continued to live with his mother, caring for her until her death some time after 1940. Then in 1970, Bella died, and his closest remaining relatives were cousins.

He remained active through the 1970s, now often described as “the man who invented basketball.” In 1971 he played a leading role in getting the Baseball Hall of Fame to induct Negro League players for the first time and later that year, he himself was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame for his lifetime contributions to the game. For the rest of the decade, perhaps slowed a bit by advancing age, but having lost none of his intellectual skills he continued to work for the league as schedule maker and member of the rules committee, coming out in opposition to the three-point rule that the NBA adopted in 1979.

He couldn’t last forever, though. In mid-November 1979 he was hospitalized for an issue variously described as a “stomach disorder” or “vascular problem.” He underwent surgery and was given a “good” prognosis, though he was forced to miss the Jewish Basketball League Alumni Association’s annual dinner for the first time in the organization’s history. But he never left the hospital, dying in his sleep in the early morning of December 7, at the age of 81.

His passing was mourned by the entire basketball community and his funeral was attended by hundreds who included the many friends in and out of basketball he had made over the years. Remembrances spoke of the kindness, warmth, and support he had offered them and how one couldn’t do any better than to emulate him in their own lives. The NBA honored him the following year by naming its rookie of the year award the Eddie Gottlieb Trophy.

While he didn’t leave any children behind to continue his line, he surely considered anyone who ever shot a basketball through a hoop to be his family and because of that, The Mogul’s legacy will endure for a long time to come.

eddie_gottlieb.txt · Last modified: 2023/10/29 02:50 by ehaight