In the ancient days when basketball was an adolescent, Eddie Gottlieb and the game survived as the prelude to a dance. They remember those times in Philly: upstairs in the grand ballroom of the Broadwood Hotel, where for 65¢ men, 35¢ ladies you could "get the Saturday night SPHAs' habit" watching Chickie Passon scrambling or Stretch Meehan maneuvering under the basket or Cy Kaselman arching in those long two-handers from way out or Eddie Gottlieb, on the bench in a loud, flowered tie, managing the team and counting the house. And afterward, when Gil Fitch would climb out of his SPHAs' uniform (designed by Eddie Gottlieb) and climb up on the stage and lead his band, the dancing would begin.
At some places, like the Visitation Athletic Club in Brooklyn, there was dancing before the game, too, and even in between the periods, but at the Broadwood it never began till after the SPHAs were finished playing. Of course, those ladies who did not wish to watch basketball were permitted to come late, when they could get in for just two bits. But very few would do that. "In those days," Eddie says, "many of the Jewish people would not let their daughters go to an ordinary dance, except they could go to the SPHAs. And listen, they were good times for the young people. We even gave whatshername, uh, Kitty Kallen, we gave her her start, and a lot of couples who are still to this day happily married, they met at the SPHAs' games. Isn't that right, Mike?"
Mike Iannarella nods gravely. Mike is the ticket manager for the Philadelphia 76ers, with offices adjoining Gottlieb's. Mike has been with Eddie, more or less, since 1929, when Gottlieb first started booking games for Mike's baseball team, the 2nd Ward Republican Club. "How are you gonna get games with a name like that?" Gottlieb had asked him before he changed it to the Philadelphia Italians. "I changed a lot of names like that," he says. SPHAs itself stood for South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. Sometimes, out of town, Eddie had them go just as the Philadelphia Hebrews.
Besides basketball, Gottlieb was the manager of various football and baseball teams, commissioner of various leagues in several sports, owner of the Negro baseball franchise and, really, proprietor and general manager of all amateur and semipro sport in Philadelphia and environs. He arranged the scheduling of virtually every team in every sport in the area. During the baseball season he would book more than 500 games a week. If you were Mike Iannarella and you were managing the 2nd Ward Republican Club and you wanted games, you went to Eddie Gottlieb. For an agent's 10% he would get you a match; the better you were, the higher the guarantee. If you crossed Eddie, if you didn't show up or something, you didn't get any more games. "They feared me like they feared the wrath of God," Eddie says. He was The Mogul. "A mogul," Eddie explains, "is a top banana."
January 22, 1968
In pro basketball today Eddie Gottlieb is still referred to as The Mogul. He was one of the organizers of the league and is on the NBA Board of Governors as a part owner of the San Francisco Warriors. He bought the team for $25,000 in 1952 and sold it for $850,000 10 years later. He also received a good salary to go out to S.F. (Eddie always calls it S.F.) and help the franchise get going out there. Later, just for kicks, The Mogul bought back a piece of the team.
The NBA also keeps Gottlieb on the Rules Committee and the Referees Committee. And the Schedule Committee? "Schedule Committee, what the hell," Eddie says. "I am the schedule committee." He always has been. "Sometimes," he says, "I get the urge and get up in the middle of the night and work on it." Mike Iannarella says, "Eddie has more brains than the rest of the NBA put together." Anyway, if you are scoring, Eddie's intelligence matches his warmth.
In his office Eddie leans back in his chair and smiles, a mischievous Buddha. It seems there should always be a band and happy music to follow Eddie Gottlieb, just as there was back at the Broadwood. His game does not lead directly to marriages anymore, but he is forever giving away things or setting up deals for friends. He has so many transistors in his office that it looks like a Tokyo discount house. There are pocket radios and portable TV sets and tape recorders and eyeglasses that have a radio in them. "I don't have one of those clock radios left," Eddie says, mad that he can't display at least one. "It's a Bulova. If you saw it, you'd want one. That's why I don't have any left. People would see one, and then I'd have to get them one at cost. So now I don't have a single one, and I'm the one that's buying them all."
Eddie has saved an awful lot of things, like great quantities of financial and attendance figures kept in large brown envelopes. There are also items with more life—basketball yearbooks dating back to the early 1900s and programs and pictures. There is a picture, for instance, of Gottlieb with Khrushchev, taken when Eddie was leading one of the Harlem Globetrotter caravans. There is a picture of Gottlieb on a camel that was taken in Egypt. ("This is before Nasser," he explains.) Another time Eddie met the Pope and he has medals he picked up then that he will give you if you are a Catholic.
In the midst of the files and the transistors sits Eddie, neat and organized before a clean desk. The only thing on the desk is the phone that rings all the time. Eddie has always worked by phone. He has always had a clean desk, too, because the way he learned to operate was to pay a bill the minute it came in, preferably by cash since that got him 3% off. That is the neat way Eddie always did business. Dun & Bradstreet stopped coming around to ask him questions a long time ago, because what good is it to investigate a man's credit rating if the man never asks for credit?
Eddie hasn't changed much since the Broadwood days. He has never been as chubby as people suggested, even though he loves sweets, especially candy and ice cream. To this day, if Eddie really likes something, he will drive all his associates berserk with his enthusiasm. How much can a man have to say about Hershey bars? Gottlieb has exasperated his most devoted companions with repetitious, tender monologues about these chocolates. He gives them away, too.
The Mogul's memory is positively faultless in every way except one: he remembers all the scores but not the years. Also, he has perfect recall of gate receipts, attendance and weather conditions, predicted and actual. But not the years. Typical Gottlieb goes something like this: "That was the first four-team doubleheader in Yankee Stadium. We came in with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the first game against the Philadelphia Stars, and in the second game it was the New York Black Yankees against the Chicago American Giants. It rained the whole night before the game and really didn't stop until just before the first game started, but we had 25,000 there, and the concessions were just treemendous. Slim Jones—he died of pneumonia when he was still very young—he was pitching for the Stars. Oh, he was fast! And we had Satchel pitching for the Crawfords. It was a 1-1 tie, so we called it in the 10th inning with the idea in mind that we could repeat the whole damn game a few weeks later, which we did. And you know, we got just about the same gate all over, even though, just like the first time, it rained right up until the game started."
What year would that be, Eddie?
"Oh now, I don't know. We could figure it out. Let's see now, Gus Greenlee, he had the idea for the four-team doubleheader, and he came to me. Now that would mean...And Slim had to still be alive—there, there's a picture of Slim. So that would make it...I ought to have something definite on this somewhere...." Eddie's not very good with the years. He is somewhere over 30 himself. "I wasn't born," The Mogul says, "I just grew, like Topsy."
Anyway, when first discovered, Eddie was living in New York City on 107th Street at Madison Avenue, in what is now Spanish Harlem, hitching rides on ice trucks over to Coogan's Bluff to see the Giants play. Baseball was Eddie's first sport, and he made a pretty fair player. "Well, I was average," he says. "Two things wrong with me as a catcher: I couldn't hit very well, and I couldn't throw very well." Then, quickly: "But, listen, I was an A-1 receiver."
Gottlieb did not touch a basketball until his mother moved the family to Philadelphia after Eddie's father Morris, who ran a candy store, died. Eddie was 9. The Gottliebs lived in South Philly, where Eddie attended Southern High. "I was considered a tough kid," he says. "And not to blow my own horn, but I was also always considered a player with a pretty good noodle." At 15 he was running a baseball team of 18- and 19-year-olds, and while still in high school he was catching weekend and summer games in an industrial league for Becker, Smith and Page, "a wallpaper outfit." He would pick up "a five-spot here, three bucks there."
In basketball, Gottlieb played a stationary guard on the YMHA team. However, when the Y reneged on promises of free memberships and carfare, Gottlieb arranged to have his group represent the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, a social club. It was 1918 and, though the club soon withdrew its offer of free uniforms, the Gottlieb teams kept the name. The Mogul also designed the uniforms, which included plaid shorts. Often, too, the SPHA across the chest was done in Hebrew letters.
In those days it was the accepted practice for teams to pick up ringers whenever possible. For a while the SPHAs had a Roman Catholic priest catching for their baseball team. Another time Rube Chambers, an Irish junk-ball pitcher, was picked up for a game. He slid into second base and was dusting himself off when an Irish buddy of his—playing shortstop that day for the opposition—asked him: "Rube, what do all those Jewish letters mean?"
"I better not tell you," Chambers said, growing darkly serious. His pal persisted. "O.K.," Chambers said, just before he ducked. "They say 'To hell with you, you Irish bastards.' "
In basketball, however, the SPHAs were more consistently Jewish and consistently good. Gottlieb became the manager (" 'Coach' didn't come in until later, until the collegiate influence") after he was graduated from the School of Pedagogy and briefly taught physical education in junior high. "There were a lot of players jumping around then, playing with one team one night, another the next," he says. "The SPHAs were one of the few teams to play a lot of games. Play Saturday night at home, then hop in the machine Sunday for a game. We played 75, 80 games a year. And they talk about the long season now! Hell, we played October into April, and I could have filled the joint all summer if I could have found anyone to play against." It was fine for the players. By the '30s, when the SPHAs were acknowledged to be world champions, players made about $35 to $50 a game.
The early SPHAs—"Gotty's Goal Gatherers," as contemporary journalists sometimes called them—had reached their peak in the 1925-26 season when they beat the Original Celtics two games out of three. They faded for a few years, but in the fall of 1929—an otherwise ominous time—they came back to the Broadwood.
Gottlieb rebuilt the team with young Jewish players. They won the Eastern League three of the next four years and then shifted to the American League when it was reorganized in 1933. The SPHAs surprised a lot of teams, especially the New York Jewels, which was the pro name for the St. John's Wonder Five, by winning the first American League title and most of those that followed. Players were younger than today's pros, and few had attended college. On the team that won the first American League title in 1933-34, Red Wolfe was the oldest at 27. Harry Litwack, who coaches at Temple now, was 25. Irv Forman was 23, and so were Gil Fitch, the bandleader, and Cy Kaselman, the high scorer. "What an eye that Kaselman had!" says Eddie. "Put him on the free-throw line and let him make one or two. Then blindfold him and he could make 100 shots in a row." Shikey Gotthoffer was only 21, and Moe Goldman came in from CCNY at the same age in midseason. He was a big center, 6'2", though years before Stretch Meehan had really been something at 6'7". The youngest of the '34 SPHAs was Inky Lautman, who was just 18 and the first player Gottlieb ever saw who could shoot with either hand. If he was the first Eddie ever saw do it, it is probable that no one else ever did it before.
Here comes The Mogul now into Horn & Hardart, the coffee shop, for a bite to eat after a game. He is with Dave Zinkoff, a friend, like Mike, who has been working around Gottlieb for decades. The Zink is most famous for doing the P.A. announcing at 76er games. He drives Eddie around sometimes in Gottlieb's big Cadillac, The Zink peering through the steering wheel, The Mogul giving orders. This is how they usually get to Horn & Hardart to wait for the first morning editions. Gottlieb rarely smokes or drinks, and he is a lifelong bachelor. "No," he says, "I never even came close. Now, maybe the girl thought she came close. Maybe that. I wouldn't know about that."
He did have one singular experience with liquor, back in 1946, when he promised to drink one martini for each of several selected games that the Warriors won. The Warriors won nine, and after they captured the title Gottlieb came into the bar to drink his debt.
"To start with, we lined up four," says Matt Guokas Sr., who played for the Warriors then and whose son plays for the 76ers now. "And they were tough ones. They were very dry martinis." Gottlieb, surprising everyone, downed the four in a row, each in one gulp. Then he demanded the next five, right away. The players, still stunned and now also scared, suggested he wait. Gottlieb did. Nothing happened. He went out for a newspaper and came back, unperturbed. But the players refused to let him have the other five. "Don't worry, Gotty, you'll feel it tomorrow," one of them called to him as he left the bar. "I haven't felt a thing yet," Gottlieb says.
"Don't you have a home?" the Horn & Hardart waitress says to Gottlieb.
"I came in just because The Zink wants something," Eddie says. Obviously, he and The Zink spend a lot of time here. In fact, Gottlieb has been patronizing several H&Hs for many years. "We used to hang over at the one at 15th and Market," he says. "All the guys would hang there, so you knew where to go if you were looking for a pitcher. You'd call up or you'd go over and just say, 'Who the hell's loose tomorrow?' I didn't get involved in much of that myself. I had enough just booking teams. If I supplied a player to a team, it was for nothing, an accommodation."
Gottlieb seldom bothered with contracts, preferring to accept a man's word. He also disliked negotiating. He wanted to set a fair price and strike a quick bargain. When he brought Negro baseball back to Yankee Stadium in 1939, he and Colonel Barrow settled the whole deal in less than five minutes. Usually Gottlieb's price was accepted, for it was well established that he was a fair man—something more than that, really. A lot of people knew he was the one to go to for walking-around money. Occasionally, he would be supporting practically every team in a league.
Probably the most protracted negotiations he ever participated in took place in 1946 when the Basketball Association of America was starting and Gottlieb heard about a back-country Kentucky boy named Joe Fulks who had burned up a service league out in the Philippines. The BAA had set a bankroll limit of $50,000 for each team, and Fulks came in asking for $8,000. "That damn hillbilly wouldn't budge a nickel," Gottlieb recalls. "Joe talked about as much as this table. I'm saying 49 words out of 50, but he's saying no. And I've never even seen the guy play!"
Gottlieb probably would have sent Fulks back to Kentucky but for one thing—the kid had turned down other offers to talk to Gottlieb first, just because Gottlieb had called him up one day and gotten him to promise that. "And he didn't know me from a bag of peanuts," The Mogul says. Silent and determined, Fulks was one guy who outlasted Gottlieb. In exasperation, Eddie finally signed him for $8,000.
Joe Fulks was to take pro basketball off the ground. He averaged an absolutely amazing 23 points a game and led the Warriors to the first BAA title. "To this day," Gottlieb says, "I will still say that Joe Fulks had the greatest assortment of shots of any player." The Mogul talked it over with Coach Gottlieb, and they decided to let the boy shoot. No one else on the team was in double figures. On January 14, 1946, Fulks threw in 41 points in Toronto, which was nothing short of fantastic. People came out to see Joe Fulks play pro basketball with the Warriors.
"I've always been a promoter-coach," Eddie says, "in that order. I'm in this game for so many years, but always that way: promoter-coach. My attitude always was that any coach should take advantage of the rules, but never to the detriment of the game. That's the line.
"Don't ask me is this player now better than that one then. The old guys all want to talk about that and argue about it. Those old ballplayers would have adjusted, I'll tell you that. I've adjusted to changes. That's the secret of my success. Now they want to know, is the game now the best basketball? It is. You know why? Because this is the kind of game that the public wants. If the public doesn't want it, it'll change.
"I always thought I was a pretty good coach. Not a bad one. I could get a team up. My primary thing was always box office. You remember Providence? It was Ernie Calverly and all those firehouse guys from Rhode Island State. Run, run, run. You remember how bad they were [6-42 in 1947-48]? One reason was that most everybody in the league held the ball on them and wouldn't let them run. Just about everybody but me. I wanted them to run. I knew from a coach's standpoint that was bad, but it was what the public wanted." Eddie Gottlieb leaned forward in his chair. "What the hell's the use of playing Providence," he said, "if it's not Providence playing?"
Gottlieb coached the Warriors until 1955, when he had a gall-bladder operation. By then he was the owner, anyway. All along, though, he guided the league. Nearly every innovation or beneficial rule change in the NBA was either inspired by Gottlieb or influenced by his judgment. "They talk about me and Benny Kerner and Danny Biasone and Les Harrison," Eddie says, a little steamed up. "They always say we carried our franchises in our hats. Well, listen, first of all, I have never operated without an office. But I could do with one man—myself—what they use six for now. I'd be crazy to hire someone to do something I could do myself, wouldn't I?" His voice got a little gruffer. Eddie has a great deal of pride. "Kerner, Biasone, me—we couldn't just go down to the bank and get a loan. This was my blood; this wasn't a tax gimmick. If I lost $50,000, it was $50,000 that I lost.
"But I understood. Listen, I grew up scrambling. It was 15¢ a day to go to school with. That was lunch money and carfare, too, if the weather was bad and you had to ride. We scuffled. But what the hell, we were pioneers. And facts are facts. We set up the guys who are making all the money now.
"Listen," Eddie said, "we were just a different breed. It was different times. I see the way they operate now, and I figure if I had to do it all over again, I'd do it their way." He leaned back and kind of winked at that thought. As he said, he could always adjust. But maybe the reason Eddie Gottlieb was able to hang on was not because he adjusted so well, but because sometimes he would not adjust at all. It is something like playing Providence—no sense being Eddie Gottlieb if it's not Eddie Gottlieb.
So Eddie said good night and picked up his hat and stepped outside into the cold Philadelphia night. He turned and adjusted the hat just a bit. The game was over and The Mogul was leaving. If you listened hard you could hear Gil Fitch and the band starting to play. And the dancing is still in Eddie's eyes.