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Professional baseball at the time could be an unwelcoming place for American Jews, particularly in the years before Hank Greenberg, who went pro in 1930. Baseball owners represented an older elite, members of a native-born class of Protestant industrialists that was anxious about accepting Jews into its ranks.
Basketball, however, was something else. A city game played in the urban neighborhoods where Jews lived, the sport was familiar. It was also relatively new, virgin territory yet to be claimed by an ethnic group. When the sport began to professionalize, the Jews were there. “It was a short step to walk into positions of ownership,” said David George Surdam, an associate professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa and the author of the 2012 book “The Rise of the National Basketball Association.”
Eddie Gottleib, better known as The Mogul, was the coach of the Philadelphia Warriors when the team won the Basketball Association of America’s inaugural championship in 1946. A Negro league baseball promoter, Gottleib got his start in basketball promoting the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association’s team. He charged a few cents to see the game, attend the dance afterward and enter a raffle for a suit. When the BAA transformed into the NBA a few years later, Gottleib remained a central figure, drawing up the NBA schedule every season until his death in 1979.
Other Jews joined Gottleib on the sport’s business side in the early days. Maurice Podoloff, an attorney, was president of the BAA and then the first president of the NBA (a post later retitled commissioner). Abe Saperstein was the commissioner of the American Basketball League, the NBA’S short-lived competitor, and the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters.
“Basketball was a Jewish sport [for] players, and obviously that morphed into ownership,” said Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of history at Yeshiva University. “It was a high-risk, entrepreneurial type of endeavor that Jews went into.”
Of course, this is all ancient history for today’s basketball owners. Unlike in the NFL, where a number of teams have been owned by the same families since the league was founded, NBA teams tend to turn over quickly, and none has family ties to the earliest days of the sport. Sterling, who will likely be forced to sell the Clippers as a result of Silver’s sanctions against him, is the league’s longest-tenured owner; he’s owned his team since only 1981.
The younger Jewish owners, like Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks, are often basketball superfans who made their money in business and turned to basketball for fun and profit. So why are there so many of them?
A lot of different kinds of people like basketball. But the Jewish love and history of the game seems to have mixed with Jewish affluence and the availability of NBA teams in a way that’s been particularly conducive to Jewish team ownership. “My armchair sociologizing would have it that Jews may or may not have a sense of their history in basketball, but they do love the sport,” said Marc Tracy, who is a staff writer for the New Republic and in 2012 co-edited the book “Jewish Jocks.” “And when they look at the court, they don’t see too many Jews.”
In Tracy’s theory, that fandom has found expression in team ownership. That’s easy to believe after watching Cuban charge the court to hug Mavericks star Vince Carter after the Carter’s game-winning three-point shot against the San Antonio Spurs on April 26: Cuban celebrating harder than any of his players. “Mark Cuban is the biggest Dallas Mavericks fan,” Tracy said.
Beyond being fun, owning an NBA team has turned out to be a pretty good investment. In the 1980s, basketball teams could be bought for a few million dollars. That’s changed dramatically in recent years. Jewish owners like Sterling and Simon, who snatched up the teams decades ago, have made out extraordinarily well. Kohl, who bought the Bucks for $19 million in 1985, is selling to Lasry and his partners for a reported $550 million.
“NBA teams have been an extremely good investment,” Friedman said. “The idea of owning a basketball team is bringing together these two [Jewish] cultural traditions of basketball and being good at business.”
Contact Josh Nathan-Kazis at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @joshnathankazis