Eddie Gottlieb's Story of Immigrant Success Resonates in South Philly

Hoops Icon Wins Overdue Recognition for Overcoming Odds

What’s Up, Wilt? Eddie Gottlieb, who was honored at South Philadelphia High School, peers up at Wilt Chamberlain in 1959.
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What’s Up, Wilt? Eddie Gottlieb, who was honored at South Philadelphia High School, peers up at Wilt Chamberlain in 1959.

By Hillel Kuttler

Published May 31, 2014, issue of June 06, 2014.
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Gottlieb earned enshrinement in several basketball halls of fame, but hoops weren’t his only game; he owned the Philadelphia Stars of baseball’s Negro Leagues, served as commissioner of a regional football conference, promoted wrestling matches, booked thousands of school and sandlot games on city facilities, and even represented entertainers as an agent.

The sweet three-pointers swished by Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry are things of beauty. Fifty-two years ago, Curry’s Oakland, California-based Warriors were Philadelphia’s own, before Gottlieb sold the team. Before that, the Warriors won the 1955–56 NBA championship and the 1946-47 title of its predecessor league, the Basketball Association of America. Prior to that, Gottlieb played for, coached and owned the predominantly Jewish team known as the Sphas, for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, one of organized basketball’s earliest dynasties.

The 76ers of today, the NBA team many Southern students doubtless cheer on, who play in an arena just 2 miles down Broad Street? The Sixers reside in the City of Brotherly Love only because Gottlieb, having left Philadelphia without a franchise, arranged the very next year for two other Jewish alumni of Southern, Irv Kosloff and Ike Richman, to move their club, the Syracuse Nationals, here.

A lifelong bachelor, Gottlieb, who died in 1979 at the age of 81, might very well nod approvingly at the state of the league today, particularly its diversity; about 25% of today’s NBA players are foreign born. When Gottlieb began coaching the Warriors in 1946, in the then-BAA, the league contained just 11 franchises, with St. Louis the westernmost outpost.

Today at Southern, about 950 students, many of them immigrants, speak 14 languages. But whether native or foreign born, many students are drawn to America’s homespun sport, basketball.

The tribute to Gottlieb thus presented Hackney with a teachable moment, a chance for speakers who knew Gottlieb, or at least his legacy, to affix him to a metaphorical alumni pedestal to benefit today’s Southern students.

Attending the dedication was Harvey Pollack, a vigorous man of 92 who still works as the 76ers’ statistician — a 68-season streak of pro-basketball employment going back to the Warriors’ very first game, against the Pittsburgh Ironmen, when Gottlieb hired him away from local colleges. There was the cane-bearing Jerry Rullo, 90, who played on that first Warriors team and also for Gottlieb’s Sphas. And next to him stood Ernie Beck, 82, a member of that second Warriors championship club.

“Here’s a poor immigrant kid who had the energy to develop a passion, which was sports, into an international activity: basketball,” said Marc Adelman, class of ’57 and a member of Southern’s alumni association.

Basketball fans, Hackney’s students included, live in the here and now, attuned to today’s stars. But Hackney hoped to see the dedication spur student discussions about Gottlieb. More importantly, he hoped it would lead them to consider the values of passion and professional commitment required to make a success of life.

Dikembe Mutombo, a longtime NBA player, now retired, and a native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, attended the marker dedication as a kind of living embodiment of the values required. “Success in life is not just where you come from, but where you want to be tomorrow,” said Mutombo, who represented the league at the event. “It can be a driving [force] for them. They can walk from the school and look at this wonderful plaque and say, ‘He went here.’”

Tuyen Luu, a freshman born in Vietnam, was dressed to the nines in the school’s Junior ROTC uniform, joining several classmates marching onto the turf as the ceremony began. Softly shy, hesitant even, Luu bore the mien of someone who’s slowly discovering herself. Upon enrolling in the school, Luu, by her own description, lacked any semblance of self-confidence. A friend urged her to join ROTC.

The experience has been positive. The group envelops her in camaraderie and purpose. “We look out for other people…and for each other,” she said.

“Right now, I have the confidence, just like that man did 100 years ago,” Luu said of Gottlieb. “I want to be just like him. Really. I can do anything.”

Contact Hillel Kuttler at feedback@forward.com

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