The area East of Russia, historically, provided a sort of division between the Russian Empire and Europe. The Jewish communities in there lived in ghettoes, often apart from the rest of the people, developing their own culture and language, the Yiddish. Plenty of writers and philosophers, playwright and actors, originated from there and often migrated to other countries to avoid the pogroms that killed many of them.
A little known story, though, tells that those same places gave life to at least three basketball coaches, real geniuses of the game and of life, who played a very important role during the first century of basketball. Even today, every year, players and coaches lift trophies in their name, though they don’t know much about who those people were. The same is true for the average fan.
Moreover, the fact that they were Jews is not just a coincidence. It is something deeply rooted in their style of play and their vision of life, since they were fighters on the field, intellectually challenging and always willing to survive even the hardest hits of destiny.
Eddie Gottlieb was born in Kiev from a Jewish family in 1898. A couple of years after his family decided to leave the country. They crossed the borders between Poland and Ukraine in a winter night. Eddie, throughout his life, remembered walking in the snow holding his sister’s hand, in the dark, fearing the Czar’s army.
They went to Trieste, then in the Austrian Empire, and took the ship to New York. Fiorello La Guardia, who would become mayor of New York in the 30s, bringing the city back to respectability, worked at the American Consulate of Trieste at the time, and he must have seen the Gottlieb family, or touched their immigrant documents in some way.
The Gottlieb’s family lived in New York first, and afterwards in Philadelphia. His father, a tailor, died still in his middle age, and Eddie found himself very young, with a mother and an invalid sister to care for.
Eddie was passionate with basketball. At a little more than 5.0 foot, about 1,60 mt, he couldn’t physically compete, but he was nonetheless a tenacious player willing to fight.
Moreover, he had to. America imported, with migrations, also the Europe’s divisions and ethnic hatreds. Basketball, as a sport, formed a long time after football and baseball, which occupied the spare time of descendants from early migrations, and basketball became a sport played in ghettoes because it just required a rim and not much space, and fitted well in the small yards and the narrow roads of the American cities.
Teams formed on ethnic bases. Families from the same area migrated to the US and recreated the environment they left, living near to each other. Often, a relative would call them, or invite to stay near to help. The kids grew up together and built their identity by reconnecting to their roots, before losing them in the American melting pot as adults.
That is why Eddie’s first team found a Jewish sponsor: the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association. SPHAS was the name of the team and became known all over the North East, and as a dominator of the ABL (American Basketball League).
Eddie innovated the sports business, or rather he invented it, at least for basketball. After playing for the SPHAS, he coached, managed and directed them. He created one of the first sports garment companies with his friends Passon and Black, and managed all the baseball in Philadelphia outside the Major Leagues. You could find him in his office smoking and calling on the phone, while he arranged two or three games in a night.
He managed the Negro League team of the Philadelphia Stars and participated in the birth of the NBA. He was a numbers wizard, with a prodigious memory. Until he died, in 1979, he managed the NBA schedule almost on his own, keeping track of all the flights and train times a team needed to know.
The Eddie Gottlieb Trophy, or Rookie of the Year, is named after him.
In that 1946, when the BAA was born, a Jewish former player coached the Washington Capitals: Arnold Auerbach, later called “red”. Arnold was born in Brooklin, in 1917, from a Minsk, Belarus, Jewish immigrant. A standout in high school, and at the college, Arnold began coaching and found a job as Washington Capitols coach in the first BAA year.
Arnold innovated the game, as Eddie innovated the sports business. He developed the fast- break and focused on defense, though it took years for him to win. When he began winning, with the late 50s Celtics, nobody could stop him.
Auerbach created a new path also in the civil liberties. The Boston Celtics drafted an African American player (Chick Cooper), in 1949, ahead of the other teams. In 1966, he left the bench to Bill Russell, the first African American coach, and in 1965 he put on the court the first all-black starting five.
Auerbach was a master until the end. He drafted Larry Bird as a Junior in 1979 and traded Joe Barry Carroll to Golden State for Robert Parish. After building the C’s team of the 60s, he built the one of the 80s.
The NBA Coach of the Year award bears his name.
The third great Jew of this list is a Russian, born in Kronstadt, near Leningrad (now Saint Petersburg), in 1928. Marshal Alexander Gomelsky, a Russian Jew who grew up during WWII, navigated the intricate wood of Soviet sports and politics throughout his life, becoming one of the most iconic characters of European Basketball.
Gomelsky was a young passionate player, but soon headed to the bench and started coaching, first in Saint Petersburg and afterwards in the Army team in Riga, Latvia’s capital.
Latvia was the first European Basketball champion in 1937 and home to some of the most talented players of the USSR. When he got there, Gomelsky realized he lacked a big man. He found him in the wood, as a resin collector from trees. Janis Crumjins anchored his first Champion’s cup winning team, for three straight years: 1958, 1959 and 1960.
Later, Gomelsky became the CSKA Moscow coach and the National Team coach. He won the Champion’s cup again in 1968 with CSKA and several European, World Championship and Olympic medals with the USSR. CSKA dominated the USSR Championship for two decades. Nevertheless, he could not lead the 1972 team, because the USSR feared he would look for asylum to Israel.
The loss at the Moscow Olympics in 1980, against Italy, threatened his status. However, Gomelsky was a man of a thousand lives and resurrected, from a political and a sports standpoint, to lead the USSR to an incredible victory against the USA in Seul in 1988. The legend goes that he promised the Lithuanian players that, in case of victory, they could go abroad. This propelled their motivation and, given the talent they had, were able to beat USA and a very talented Yugoslavia in the finals.
It’s almost impossible to find somebody capable to survive from WWII, through the Stalin years, in Moscow, near the power, for so long, through victories and defeats. This speaks for Gomelsky’s capacity to persist in a hostile environment, a gift deeply connected to his Jewish origin.
On the other hand, he was always a man of the power, born poor and willing to climb the social ladder, as it was possible to do in the USSR.
Ironically, the Euroleague Coach of the Year award is the Alexander Gomelsky Trophy.
Kiev, Minsk, Kronstadt, ideally follow the Eastern borders of Russia. Gottlieb, Auerbach and Gomelsky originated here, in a land made of many different cultures, all mixed up between three empires: Russia, Prussia and Austria. A cultural mix from which plenty of men of arts, scientists, philosophers, came.
And also three of the most important basketball coaches, that were relegated to their sports because they couldn’t do much else, but were able to elevate it and change like no other, in such an indelible way that even today, every year, somebody reads their name on a trophy, and links it to some form of greatness.