There is no major Philadelphia basketball institution with a richer, more continuous Jewish history than Temple University’s men’s varsity.
The NBA’s Philadelphia Warriors were, in part, derived from the SPHAs, and their owners and coach and, indeed, many on their early roster were Jewish. But the team moved to San Francisco in 1962, severing a local historical timeline.
Over the years, the replacements, the 76ers, have not lacked for Jewish flavor, but the product itself was never particularly Jewish.
Once upon a time, Temple basketball’s was.
As has been the case for several generations now, Temple’s roster hasn’t had a lot of Jewish names on it. Yet, the prestige of Temple basketball has enabled coaches from Litwack to Casey to Chaney to Dunphy to McKie to recruit elite basketball talent from all over the country and the world (or at least Argentina — see: Pepe Sanchez and Juan Fernandez). And that prestigious foundation was laid, in no small measure, by Jewish players, coaches and athletics administrators.
Temple held its annual Jewish Heritage Night on Feb. 20 during a game against the once-mighty University of Connecticut. The play on the court was sloppy, uneven and, at several distinct points, exhilarating, as Temple won a double-overtime thriller, defeating UConn 93-89.
But to see why a place like Temple needs a Jewish Heritage Night, you need to take your eyes off the court and direct them to the sky.
There, in Temple Basketball’s Ring of Honor, you’ll see names like Meyer “Mike” Bloom who led the 1938 Owls to the inaugural NIT championship and the program’s only national title; Ed Lerner, who once scored 22 points in a stunning 1948 upset of Adolph Rupp’s mighty Kentucky team that would go on to win that year’s national championship; and Bruce Drysdale, who was the Big 5’s Player of the Year in 1961.
And then there’s “The Chief” — coach Harry Litwack — whose run at Temple as player and coach spanned six decades, during which time he amassed 373 victories as a head coach, led Temple to two Final Fours and coached what Philadelphia basketball historian Sonny Hill routinely calls the greatest backcourt in college basketball history in Guy Rodgers and Hal Lear.
Rodgers’ and Lear’s retired numbers occupy prime real estate in the Liacouras Center rafters; they’re next to the banner commemorating their coach’s 1976 induction into the Naismith Hall of Fame.
Of the 43 Temple basketball players and coaches who’ve been inducted in the university’s Athletics Hall of Fame, seven of them are Jewish — eight if you count Al Shrier, Temple’s late sports information director, who guided the careers of local Jewish broadcasters Merrill Reese and Marc Zumoff. A banner immortalizing Shrier’s contributions to Temple basketball hangs in the rafters with Litwack, Chaney and the rest of Temple’s greats.
“It all started back in the days of the SPHAs. Litwack came from that era, and Temple, at that time, was an outlet for Jews seeking higher education,” said Larry Dougherty, Temple’s current sports information director. “And then that filtered into athletics. I learned about that history from working with Al Shrier. When I went to his Jewish Hall of Fame induction ceremony, I saw the entire rich history of Jewish athletes that have come out of Temple. And not just athletes but members of the media: Merrill Reese, Marc Zumoff, Dave Zinkoff, who’s in our hall of fame, too.
“And I see it in our fan base. I’ve met so many people in my 17 years here and a lot of them have been Jewish — they’re following Temple basketball. And part of that is because we’ve had — in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s — a lot of our best players were Jewish. That’s where our recruiting base was. Obviously times have changed in terms of how Division I programs are recruiting, but, still, that’s the history of Temple athletics and, really, Temple basketball.”
One group of about 20 hardy souls who’d made the trek down Broad Street from Ohev Shalom in Richboro could be found in the mezzanine. The group, led by Temple Law alums Jeff and Dianne Pevar, enjoyed their annual trip to North Broad Street.
“It’s an opportunity for us, where we are in Bucks County, to reconnect with a lot of our roots when we come down to something like this,” Dianne Pevar said.
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