Tuesday, March 31, 2015

'Mr. Basketball' Eddie Gottlieb memorialized at his South Phila. alma mater

Eddie Gottlieb. (AP file photo)
Eddie Gottlieb. (AP file photo)

Seventy-four words on a blue metal marker can't encompass the enormity of basketball's Eddie Gottlieb.

A pioneer? Sure. He coached and owned the Philadelphia Warriors, drafted and signed Wilt Chamberlain.

An innovator? Absolutely. He oversaw the adoption of the game's 24-second rule, helped found the NBA and for nearly three decades organized its rules and schedules.

But there are other, lesser-known aspects of the sports impresario that made him a Philadelphia legend - and that led 75 admirers to gather in South Philadelphia on Wednesday, 35 years after Gottlieb's death, to cheer the unveiling of a historic plaque bearing his name.

Beginning in the 1930s, Gottlieb was co-owner and chief booster of the Philadelphia Stars of the Negro League. He was a master promoter of wrestling and baseball, served as commissioner of a semi-pro football league, and even worked as booking agent for comedian Joey Bishop and entertainer Max Patkin, known as the Clown Prince of Baseball.

"One of the premiere sports figures in Philadelphia history," said his biographer, sports historian Rich Westcott. "I'd rate him up there with Connie Mack."

The blue-and-yellow marker stands on the front lawn of South Philadelphia High School, where Gottlieb played basketball and from which he graduated in 1916.

"We in Philadelphia are proud to call him one of our favorite sons," said Councilman Mark Squilla, reading from a proclamation.

Gottlieb's diploma was on display - it bears his birth name, Isadore Gottlieb. A representative of the state Historical and Museum Commission attended. So did a school alumni association officer. And eight-time all-star and former Sixer Dikembe Mutombo, now an NBA ambassador, and who at 7-foot-2 towered above everyone.

"Do you think you need a ladder?" Celeste Morello asked him when it came time to remove the blue drape that hid the marker.

He didn't.

He reached up and yanked it off.

It was Morello, a local historian, who made the day possible, pushing for Gottlieb and gathering endorsements on his behalf from people such as former NBA Commissioner David Stern.

Eddie Gottlieb stood 5-foot-8, balding and round, the Kiev-born son of Ukrainian Jews who immigrated to New York and then moved to South Philadelphia.

He was founder, player and coach of the legendary South Philadelphia Hebrew Association, a team known by its acronym, the SPHAs, which dominated the Eastern and American Basketball Leagues.

In 1946, Gottlieb helped establish a new pro league, the Basketball Association of America. He was owner, general manager and coach of the Philadelphia Warriors, which won the first championship of the new league.

Three years later, in 1949, he helped the Basketball Association of American merge with the National Basketball League, a move that created the NBA. Gottlieb's Warriors won the NBA title in 1956.

To admirers, he was "Gotty" or "The Mogul" or "Mr. Basketball," a man who was brilliant, opinionated, loyal, honest, caring and testy. His impact on basketball and sports could - and does - fill a book.

Westcott wrote a full study, The Mogul: Eddie Gottlieb, Philadelphia Sports Legend and Pro Basketball Pioneer.

He said in an interview that Gottlieb's greatest act may have been the one hardly anybody knows about: Gottlieb's younger sister was mentally disabled, and he cared for her in his home until the day she died.

Other endevors were public. At one time, Gottlieb tried to buy the Phillies. Later, when the Baseball Hall of Fame sought to admit former Negro League players, it asked Gottlieb to help decide who should be inducted.

He was the force behind the NBA's territorial draft rule, later eliminated, which let teams claim a local college player in exchange for their first-round pick. That procedure enabled Gottlieb to draft Chamberlain in 1959, because the star had played at Overbrook High School before going to the University of Kansas.

"He was never against change," said longtime Sixers statistician Harvey Pollack, 92, a good friend. "He thought there was always some way to improve the product."

Gottlieb led the NBA Rules Committee for 25 years, and for nearly 30 years plotted the league's schedule of games.

That was no computer-driven enterprise, Westcott said. He wrote out the schedule on paper napkins in restaurants, or jotted down notes on a pad he kept by his bedside. In his head, Gottlieb kept track of train schedules and holidays that could disrupt his planning.

"Armed with a great smile and a razor-sharp memory," says Gottlieb's NBA Hall of Fame biography, he "was an innovator, successful coach, and masterful promoter."

What drove him?

"That was his life," Westcott said. Gottlieb never married, had no children. He devoted himself to sports.

Gottlieb died in 1979 at age 81. Today the NBA's Rookie of the Year Award bears his name.

"He was involved in so much," Westcott said. "He certainly deserves a marker. He deserves a monument."

jgammage@phillynews.com

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Jeff Gammage Inquirer Staff Writer
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