'Mr. Basketball' Eddie Gottlieb memorialized in South Phila.

On May 15, 1958, Gottlieb, president of the Philadelphia Warriors, signed Temple All-American Guy Rodgers to a contract. Gottlieb was honored Wednesday with a historic plaque at South Phila. High.
On May 15, 1958, Gottlieb, president of the Philadelphia Warriors, signed Temple All-American Guy Rodgers to a contract. Gottlieb was honored Wednesday with a historic plaque at South Phila. High. (File photograph)
Posted: May 23, 2014

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 Wednesday in South Philadelphia, 35 years after his 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 Leagues. He was a master promoter of wrestling and baseball, served as commissioner of a semipro football league, and even worked as booking agent for the comedian Joey Bishop and 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. A representative of the state Historical and Museum Commission attended. So did a school alumni association officer. And eight-time all-star and former 76er 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 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 Warriors, which won the first championship of the new league.

Three years later, he helped the association 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 might have been one hardly anybody knows about: His younger sister was mentally disabled, and he cared for her in his home until the day she died.

Other endeavors were public. At one time, Gottlieb tried to buy the Phillies. Later, when the Baseball Hall of Fame sought to admit former Negro Leagues 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 player in exchange for their first-round pick - meaning clubs could snag popular area players who would help draw spectators to their arenas.

That procedure enabled Gottlieb to draft Chamberlain in 1959. He argued that Chamberlain was covered by the rule because he grew up in Philadelphia and played at Overbrook High School before going to the University of Kansas, which was outside the territory of any NBA team.

"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."




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