#MadeInPHILA | Spirit of The Champion


By Curtis Harris

In the 1890s, Philadelphia was a city seemingly bursting at the seams as its population hit one million people for the first time. Irish, German, Polish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants saw the City of Brotherly Love as their haven from destitution and persecution in Europe. Black Americans too had found solace in the city for over a century. Pennsylvania’s abolition of slavery in the late 1700s attracted African Americans seeking safety from the oppression of enslavement and then the indignity of Jim Crow laws in the South. Native-born white Americans from the rural countryside also flocked to Philly in search of work and a better life.

“Philadelphia of To-day” from 1888; Library of Congress

These are the communities that coalesced and began the area’s rich basketball history at the end of the 19th century. Although the sport was invented in Springfield, Massachusetts, it would be in Philadelphia and its surrounding environs that professional basketball took off. In 1898, teams from Philly, Trenton, Germantown and other locales in eastern Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey formed the grandiosely (and misleadingly) titled National League of Professional Basketball. Although that first pro league folded by 1904, the sport had planted permanent roots in the city.

Other pro leagues would spring up such as the Philadelphia Basketball League (1903-09), the original Eastern League (1909-33), and the Continental Basketball Association (1946-2009). Meanwhile high school, amateur, college, and neighborhood professional squads formed all over the city. Most famous of the professional bunch in this era was the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (Sphas). Also known as the Philadelphia Hebrews, this dynastic franchise reached its apex under Jewish Ukrainian immigrant Eddie Gottlieb during the Great Depression and World War II winning a total of 10 championships between the American and Eastern Basketball Leagues.

Eddie Gottlieb, organizer of the Sphas, founder of the Philadelphia Warriors and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame; Getty Images

Despite carving out homes in different sections of town and making themselves Philadelphians, newcomers like Gottlieb didn’t always receive warm welcomes. In 1844, as Irish Catholics fled famine in Europe, two separate riots erupted in Philly targeting the new immigrants. At least 30 people were killed and another 100 injured in the incidents that spring and summer. In 1918 another major riot erupted. Pastor T.D. Akins put his finger on what triggered the violence of that summer when he wrote, “Afro-Americans of this city are tired of legalized murder” at the hands of police. Indeed, even the success of the Sphas engendered its own bigoted response as basketball was derisively called “Jew ball.” A New York newspaper editor in the 1930s claimed that basketball “places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart aleckness.” All of these attributes were conveniently stereotypes of Jewish people.

Undaunted by such negativity, the Mogul - as Gottlieb was known - had his eyes set on eventually making pro basketball a rival to Major League Baseball. So in 1946 he let the Sphas begin their slow fade into obscurity and founded the Philadelphia Warriors. Signing grads from the Big Five local colleges - like Matt Guokas Sr. - Gottlieb also keenly attracted migrants to the city like Joe Fulks. The high-scoring forward from rural Kentucky catapulted the team to the 1947 Basketball Association of America (BAA) title.

The 1946-47 BAA Champion Philadelphia Warriors. Half of the team’s playoff roster were Philadelphians; Getty Images

In 1949 the BAA merged with the National Basketball League and formed the NBA, a move Gottlieb was instrumental in orchestrating. The Warriors continued stockpiling talent from the Philly area, while also importing players from other states like scoring machine and Ohioan Neil Johnston. In 1956, led by Johnston and Villanova grad Paul Arizin, the Philly Warriors won their second title by squashing the Fort Wayne Pistons. In 1962, the Warriors nearly returned to the Finals on the strength of Arizin, Tom Gola, Guy Rodgers and Wilt Chamberlain, all Philly natives and all Basketball Hall of Famers. But a last second shot in Game 7 of the 1962 Eastern Division Finals sent the Boston Celtics to the NBA championship and closed the chapter on Philadelphia’s first NBA team as the Warriors moved west that summer to San Francisco.

Hal Greer scoring for the Syracuse Nationals before their move to Philly becoming the 76ers. Greer is the franchise’s all-time leading scorer; Getty Images

For the 1963-64 season, Philadelphia returned to the NBA when the Syracuse Nationals relocated to Pennsylvania. Rechristened the 76ers, the franchise initially received a deservingly wary welcome from Philly fans. After all, the Warriors and the Nationals had battled in numerous playoff series over the previous decade. Can you imagine the Celtics or Knicks suddenly being your “hometown” team after years of being playoff foes

Nonetheless, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and company began the process of winning over their new city. The conversion received a substantial boost midway through the 1964-65 season when Chamberlain was brought back home in a blockbuster trade. The Big Dipper would win three straight MVP awards (1966-68) and in 1967 the 76ers set NBA records with a 46-4 start and final regular season record of 68-13 en route to the title. Fittingly, the 76ers crushed Boston and then defeated the San Francisco Warriors in the NBA Finals to secure their first title in Philly. On that championship roster were home-grown talents like Chamberlain, Bob Weiss, Bill Melchionni, Matt Guokas Jr., and Wali Jones.

Wilt Chamberlain scoring over Bill Russell in the 1967 Eastern Division Finals; Getty Images

Since that breathtaking title team, the 76ers have become an ingrained part of the Philly sports landscape and have proudly represented the important role that basketball has played in the city for 120 years. Legendary players – although not from Philly – had their greatest moments performing in Philadelphia. Dr. J made his house calls with high-flying dunks. Moses took the 76ers to the Promised Land in 1983. Allen Iverson crossed over and broke ankles on a nightly basis.

And of course, the playgrounds, high schools, and colleges of Philly continue their own long tradition of churning out great players for the rest of the basketball world to enjoy. Rasheed Wallace, Earl Monroe, Fred Carter, Jameer Nelson, Kobe Bryant, and Ray Scott never played professionally in their hometown, but they took their own slice of Philadelphia to the rest of the basketball world to enjoy.

Native Philadelphians and former NBA All-Stars Rasheed Wallace and Kobe Bryant positioning for a rebound; Getty Images

Like these basketball greats, other icons in too many areas to count have shared their city’s culture and triumphs. Don’t forget that Philly gave the world Richard Allen’s AME Church, set the stage for Marian Anderson’s operatic performance at the Lincoln Memorial challenging segregation, and sent astronaut Richard Ferguson floating among the stars. The city’s musical heritage is like none other thanks to transplants like the O’Jays imploring everyone to get on the love train and the homegrown Roots giving America its late night comedy soundtrack with Jimmy Fallon.

Even Ben Franklin knew what was up way back in the day. As a teenager he ditched Boston for Philly back in 1722 and now he’s on the $100 bill. Philadelphia makes greatness not only in the people it produces within, but from those that flock to the city from the outside looking for opportunity and seeking inspiration. The process isn’t always easy or smooth, but these folks continue to hammer out a proud tradition.

Opera singer Marian Anderson performs at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday in 1939; Getty Images

It’s because of them that when you see #MADEinPHILA, you should think of the Overbrook power of a Big Dipper dunk, talk about the Benjamins as Hall & Oates croon about making dreams come true, or sit back relax and enjoy the intergalatic fury of Darryl Dawkins’s Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam.

It’s all #MADEinPHILA, baby.