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Saturday, May 24, 2008

Book Review: The Mogul: Eddie Gottlieb, Philadelphia Sports Legend and Pro Basketball Pioneer

Things were different then.

No cell phones, no cable television, no big arenas with luxury boxes, cigar bars and $6 chocolate chip cookies.

No private jets, no entourages, no bling.

The guys my dad knew as casual acquaintances were short, rumpled guys, serious, determined, some lacking in basic social graces except "how ya doin?", and you weren't sure that they meant it when they said it. Sometimes they seemed to be in a hurry, trying to get from one opportunity to the next, yet, because the pace of the world was slow, at other times they seemed to have all the time in the world.

They were older than my dad, not necessarily old enough to be his father but most certainly much older brothers. They worked hard, they were deal makers, promoters, men who tried to make something happen. They weren't necessarily hale fellows well met, but they were, well, memorable.

They ate from the automat at Horn 'N Hardarts on East Market Street in Philadelphia (and if you ever had the baked crock of baked beans there, you'd remember it for life and swear that nowhere, nowhow could anyone come close to replicating that type of delicacy), they had their businesses in their heads or on random pieces of paper stuffed in their pockets, they knew everyone and every gym and playground, and, boy, could they tell stories. You see, Philadelphia was smaller then, much smaller than it is today, and people lived closer in, so you ran into people everywhere you went and they were prone to stop by, unannounced, to say hello, because that's what people in those days did.

I'm not going to reveal the source of my knowledge of the topic of the book, but Eddie Gottlieb was familiar to my father, because one of the supporting cast mentioned in the book was a neighbor of, and business associate of, my father (lest you draw any inappropriate conclusions, the business was totally legitimate and my father was a straight arrow). As a result, I had heard references to "Gotty" all of my young life, because Philadelphia was a basketball town, and Gotty, all 5'4" of him (sorry, Rich Westcott, but if Eddie Gottlieb was 5'8" then Wilt Chamberlain was 7 1/2 feet tall), was a well-known figure.

No one outworked the man, no one knew the business of professional sports better than he, and no one could lay claim to being the father of the NBA more than Eddie Gottlieb could have. He got his start as a player, a teacher, a promoter, and he formed a legendary team of intercity Jewish young men called the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association (the SPHAs) that was one of the best early teams in the history of organized basketball. I recall summertime conversations at the pool of a friend of my father's when the dads would talk about the SPHAs and how great some of the players were. The father of the SPHAs was Eddie Gottlieb.

Eddie Gottlieb also was a booking agent, and he had dibs on certain venues and got a cut of the take when he booked a team in a venue. He was involved in various ways in Negro League baseball, and if there were those who had bad things to say about him, they did so much more because of his tightfistedness with money (he treated nickels like they were manhole covers) than they did because of his views on race (which were not enlightened, especially at the time he owned the Philadelphia Stars).

He ended up buying the Philadelphia Warriors from Walter Annenberg and coaching them, but he was no Red Auerbach. Auerbach was the innovator on the court, whereas Gottlieb coached the team with no great method, except, perhaps to coach to a style that would maximize an exciting style of play and therefore put people in the seats. After he sold the Warriors to a Bay Area group in the late 1950's, he served as a consultant for the team. Seemingly forever, he sat on the NBA rules committee, advocated many rules changes that made the game more entertaining (such as the 24-second clock, although it wasn't his idea), and served as the NBA's schedulemaker until his death in the late 1970's. At one point prior to that time, the NBA tried to get a computer to replicate Gottlieb's Herculean efforts in scheduling the long 82-game season, and the computer short-circuited.

Gottlieb never married, looked out for a sister who was in and out of mental institutions her entire life until she died in her mid-70's, was charitable to all sorts of people and causes without ever seeking any publicity, hung out with legendary 76ers public address announcer Dave Zinkoff (the best P.A. announcer in the history of the pro game), used to eat frequently at the house of one-time 76ers' owner Ike Richman, had a messy office that had all sorts of visitors, kept most of his business dealings in his head, bought 6 suits at a time, and once asked for a player to return twelve cents to him when he gave the player too much meal money a month earlier. Many liked him, some didn't (because he was direct in his dealings and not a diplomat), but all seemed to have respected him. He was a true period piece, an American original the likes of whom will not be replicated.

Author Rich Westcott did as good a job as possible writing a book about this legendary man, and, overall, it's a good read. The unfortunate aspect of biographies like these is that Gottlieb and his contemporaries are long-since deceased, and the guys who played for him are either pretty old or deceased, and, in any event, the activities of which they speak happened four, five and six decades ago. In short, it's hard to capture the flavor of the times or the people involved in the tapestry that was Gottlieb's life because the source material isn't as rich as it was, say, thirty years ago. Nonetheless, Rich Westcott described the Eddie Gottlieb who was described to me -- direct, persistent, brilliant, and, deep down, a nice man with a passion for promotion and basketball.

If you're looking for a good book to give your father for Father's Day about Philadelphia sports way back when or the NBA's history in particular, buy him this one. It's a good read, and it takes you back to days when the game was more accessible, and when the owners ran the teams for the love of what they were doing and not to feed their own egos.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just finished the book. A good read. A real slice of Philly sports past. Good detail about the move of the Warriors, and birth of the Sixers. I do miss Convention Hall.Hard to think about pro ball at Lincoln High.

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