The Man With a Thousand Faces

One of the seminal figures of the early NBA was Eddie Gottlieb, a.k.a., “Gotty” or, out of earshot, “The Mogul.” Gotty owned the Philadelphia Warriors from the mid-1940s through the early 1960s. That’s when he quietly sold the Warriors for a then-hefty $850,000 and allowed his beloved franchise to be relocated to San Francisco. But Gotty hung around the league for several more years, drawing up the regular-season schedule, serving as a special consultant, and even spearheading the NBA’s initial counterattack on the rival ABA from his Philadelphia office. 

Gotty, standing 5-toot-8 and built like an Emperor penguin, entertained lots of friends and financial interests, and the two could cloud his outlook on the NBA. When the NBA Board of Governors voted to integrate the league in 1950, Gottlieb reportedly hissed at Fort Wayne’s Carl Bennett, who cast the deciding vote, “Carl, you sonofabitch. You just ruined the league.” As Bennet and everyone in the room knew, Gotty was invested in the Harlem Globetrotters. He, like most NBA owners in the early 1950s, also depended on the “Clown Princes of Basketball” appearing from time to time before a scheduled NBA game to pack the house and boost his gate receipts. 

As sports historian Rick Wescott wrote in his excellent book The Mogul (2008), “As always, Gottlieb put the size of the crowd above all other matters.” Seeing that Black players helped, not hurt, the size of the crowds, Gotty went head-to-head with his old friend Abe Saperstein, owner of the Globetrotters, to secure the highly touted Wilt Chamberlain for NBA stardom. Through the years and all its changes, Gotty remained at heart the same, bow-tied, blunt-spoken, authoritarian, “what have you done for me lately, kid” neighborhood promoter with a little office on Chestnut Street. As former Warrior Bill Mlkvy recalled of Gotty:

“We were paid once a month. You always had to arrange an appointment to get your paycheck. I remember going into his office. I’d sit in a chair across from him. He’d say, ’Before I give you the check, let’s review your stats. When you played against the Knicks, you played 10 minutes, and you didn’t do crap. You were useless. I put you in, and you go out there, and you missed your first three shots. What’s going on?’ I’d listen, then he’d give me the check and say, ‘Now let’s improve and work on this.’”

Here’s a rare, long profile of Gotty from the late 1940s. It was tucked away in Clair Bee’s 1949 Basketball Annual, and the byline belongs to Herb Good 0f the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin. Enjoy!

Eddie Gottlieb Is one of the most successful coaches in basketball, but he makes light of his ability to assemble and direct winning teams and glosses over his generally acknowledged mastery of strategy and the finer points of the game. 

“I’m a promoter first, a coach second,” he says, and his rather simple self-evaluation may explain why the Basketball Association of America got off to such a flying start in Philadelphia three years ago and why the Philadelphia Warriors have become one of the most magnetic attractions in major league court circles. 

When the 48-year-old Gottlieb, veteran of some 30 years in the pro game as a player, coach, manager, and owner, and Peter A. Tyrell, president and general manager of the Philadelphia Arena, organized the Warriors in 1946, it was not only by chance that the original squad listed standout stars from three top ranking Philadelphia colleges, and included players of Irish, Jewish, German, Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, and Finnish backgrounds.   

They signed long distance snipers Angelo Musi, poker-faced George Senesky, handsome Howard Dallmar, big, rugged Art Hillhouse, light-hearted Petey Rosenberg, aggressive Jerry Fleishman, affable Matt Goukas, serious Jerry Rullo, Shufflin’ Freddy Sheffield, and lantern-jawed Johnny Murphy with the definite intent of appealing to virtually every sports group in the Quaker City.

Also signed was a lanky unknown by the name of Joe Fulks from a place called Kuttawa, Ky., and overnight he became the biggest, most appealing attraction of all. It is doubtful whether the 6-foot-5 Fulks would be universally hailed today as the Babe Ruth of the pro sport were it not for Gottlieb’s promotional-mindedness. 

Gottlieb, a short, stocky, chubby-faced individual of tremendous energy, at once sensed he had a scorer of unusual ability and promptly laid plans to exploit Fulks’ sensational shotmaking to the utmost. Here in the rough was the “name” needed by a new team and new league for quick success. 

His strategy was ridiculously simple. He merely built the attack of the Warriors around Fulks, telling the lazy-mannered Kentuckian to “shoot at every opportunity” and impressing the rest of the squad that their main duty was to “pass the ball to Joe.”

Before long the Warriors attack WAS Fulks. It didn’t make for smooth teamplay, but it paid off in points aplenty for Fulks, plenty of big, black headlines in the newspapers and a surprising number of victories for the Warriors. By the end of the inaugural BAA season, Fulks had compiled the most points (1,611 in the 70 games) ever registered by an individual in a single season of pro ball, and the Warriors were sitting proudly atop the throne as champions. 

Fulks’ tremendous deluge of points soon resulted in fans everywhere clamoring for a chance to see him. Turn-away crowds became the rule at the Philadelphia Arena and the crowds picked up on the road. Not only were the Warriors soundly established in their first year of operation, but so was the Basketball Association of America. 

The stress on Fulks wasn’t always appreciated in rival camps. Some coaches thought Gottlieb was rubbing it in by keeping Fulks in the lineup all the way or by sending him back into the game when the Warriors had a big lead. 

“Don’t worry about it,“ he would tell rival coaches when they appeared a trifle miffed. “The fans come out to see Joe score so we give him every effort to get as many as he can.”

Gotty explain to associates: ”They don’t realize these extra points Joe is getting will pay off in more customers when we play here again.” His foresight was upheld last season when the Warriors set attendance records in almost every city they visited. 

All this attention and “build up” on one player very easily could have ruined the morale or broken the spirit of a club under the direction of one less experienced or less shrewd and talented in handling players. There was never a squawk from any of the Warriors, although many a brilliant individual performance went without mention in the press because of Fulks’ basket-searing. Never once was there so much as a hint of dissension simply because Gottlieb had the complete respect and confidence of all the players, and because Fulks himself was unassuming, a likable guy without a trace of big hat and who sold himself with the greatest variety of shots ever mastered by one individual. 

The 1948-49 Philadelphia Warriors. Joe Fulks (10) was the star of the show.

With Fulks assured a top niche in basketball’s hall of fame, Gottlieb switched to a more balanced attack last year with the two-fold purpose of outmaneuvering the “Stop Fulks” roadblocks set up by the opposition and to prove to skeptics that Jumpin’ Joe was a lot more ballplayer than a mere shooter. Dallmar and Senesky did more scoring  while Fulks did more concentrating on rebounds, handing out assists and improving his defense. In some games he took as few as two shots in a 12-minute quarter, yet wound up with 1,231 points in 56 games, again tops for a BAA player and second only to Minneapolis’ George Mikan, first in the entire nation. 

Gottlieb’s teams have always used a style of play designed to please the fans as well as roll up victories. He wants all five players constantly on the move, advancing the ball with short, snappy sizzling passes, utilizing the fast-breaking, run-and-shoot style to the utmost. 

He doesn’t necessarily believe this is the most effective way to win games, but uses the style because it makes for a very fast game and a good show for the paying customers. “We try to give ‘em what they want,” he says. 

His teams rely on a few set plays, Gottlieb counting on individual brilliance, good ballhandling and smart teamwork to provide scoring openings. He dislikes the dribble, except for close drive-in tactics, because he believes it slows down the game and prompts players without the ball to stand around. A member of the BAA’s Board of Governors and a member of the league’s rules committee, Gottlieb was largely instrumental in the league banning the zone defense because he says it slows the game.   

Long before firehouse basketball with its accompanying high scores became popular among the collegians, Gottlieb employed that style with the Philadelphia Sphas, a team he helped found with two former South Philadelphia high school teammates back in 1918-19. He still owns the Sphas, becoming the sole owner in 1933, and they now serve as a Warriors’ farm in the American League. The Sphas, who won 10 pennants in two different leagues in 17 years Gottlieb was manager-coach, were such crowd-pleasers that for years they packed between 3,000 and 4,000 into the Broadwood Hotel gym every Saturday night.

An unquenchable desire to win and the unceasing thrill realized from competition prompted Gottlieb to turn his back on successive jobs as a clerk, sporting goods salesman, and school teacher and allowed nature to take its course in his chosen field. And after all these years, he’s still as excited and enthused as a boy with a new puppy. 

There’s no such thing with Gotty as taking a game in stride. He’s about as comfortable and acrobatic during a game as a worm on a hot griddle, grimacing and writhing about as if in the grip of death’s throes. He demands perfection and always is one or two plays ahead of the team and he undergoes agony at every mistake and muffed opportunity. He’s helped push his hairline back a couple inches over the years with his habit of slapping his forehead with his open palm during the tension of a game. One moment, he will hold his head in his hands, the picture of abject woe, and the next second he’s off the bench, waving one fist in the air and shouting approval of a glittering play. While the perspiration runs berserk and he’s berating or cheering his boys, he’s continually yanking at his loosened tie, first this way, then that.

All of which once caused sportswriter Red McCarthy to observe: “Some night, one false move on the necktie, and it will be ‘Game called on account of strangulation.’”

Needless to say, by a game’s end, Gotty usually resembles a physical wreck. He is weak, sometimes to the point of exhaustion, but victory is a marvelous tonic and he recovers rapidly. Defeat leaves him utterly crushed and ejected and unconsolable. He moans and groans and replays the game hours at end until he talks himself out of it with the aid of patient Cy Kaselman, assistant coach, and sympathetic Arena associates. 

Some fans suspect his antics on the bench are all part of the show, but those who have known him for a long time insist he’s been that way as long as they can remember. “When Gottlieb was a teacher and we coached rival grammar school volleyball teams, he went through the same face-slapping, tie-jerking, and expressions of agony as he does now,” confirms Charles Roeser, official timer at the Philadelphia Arena.  

Others recall when Eddie was the only player with any natural ability on a faculty team, and he expected to win just the same. He thought nothing of giving his fellow teachers, including his principal, a tongue lashing for slipping up on assignments. 

Although defeat leaves him terribly low, Gottlieb manages to be a good sport and doesn’t hesitate to congratulate the opposing coach and makes no effort to place the blame on the referees, even though he might have been on their neck. 

Although wrought up on the bench, Gottlieb is ever alert to every situation and prompt action on his part has helped win more than one game for the Warriors. At Providence last year, the Warriors held a scant two-point lead with only seconds remaining in an extra period. Ernie Calverley was awarded a free throw and before the slim Providence star stepped up to the foul line, Gottlieb scurried up court and requested the referee to find out just how much time remained. Upon checking, the referee signaled a split-second.

Calverley’s toss narrowed the margin to a single point, and Howard Dallmar put the ball in play for the Warriors from underneath the basket. Instead of passing to an open teammate, Howie tossed the ball high in the air, figuring the game would be over before anyone got it. But it was grabbed by a Providence player, who passed to Kenny Sailors for a field goal just as the buzzer sounded. 

The press flashed the score as a Providence victory, and the fans and even Nat Hickey, Providence coach, went home believing the Steamrollers had won. Rising to heights of eloquence that would have convinced his aged mother she was correct in wanting him to be a lawyer, Gottlieb argued and battled with the officials for more than 15 minutes, stormily insisting Providence could not have won if only a split-second remained at the time of Calverley’s foul try. The referees finally agreed and belatedly informed the press they were reporting the game to league headquarters as a Philadelphia victory. 

Providence filed an official protest, but it was not upheld.

With such a champion in their corner, the Warriors have never hesitated to go all out for him. They not only have great respect for his knowledge of the game and his ability, but are genuinely fond of him as a person. They are amused, rather than annoyed, by his rather bossy, exuberant nature and his little eccentricities are a source of constant joy. They call him Ed or Eddie, but among themselves fondly referred to him as The Mogul. 

One reason for this happy-family situation is that Gottlieb treats his proteges as grown men, trusts them completely and doesn’t burden them with training or curfew rules. Gotty doesn’t smoke or drink, but he never objects if his players want to relax in that manner. In fact, he’s actually encouraged them at times to “blow off a little steam.” 

He tells them they are old enough to realize they can’t play or stay in the league for long if not in condition and that, once he gets them in shape, it is their responsibility to stay that way. 

“How could I put a curfew on the boys when it takes me until the wee hours to relax after a game?” he says. He wouldn’t hesitate to crack down if it ever became necessary, but he says his boys are too smart to overdo things. 

Despite his holler and bluster, Gottlieb is deeply sentimental, and he waits until the last split second to release a player or notify one of being traded, and he’d never think of changing the personnel of the championship team without first giving that squad every opportunity to prove it wasn’t strong enough for the new race. The veteran player at the end of the trail is always given an “extra chance” to prove whether or not he’s washed up. 

Veterans such as Musi and Senesky sign Warriors contracts before they are ever drawn up, so completely sold are they on Gotty’s penchant for doing the right thing by them. He never had any written contracts with his Sphas.

Gottlieb’s energy is a source of constant wonder to all who know him. In addition to his basketball activities, he promotes wrestling, Negro baseball, minor league professional football, and books games for hundreds of semi-pro and amateur teams and has a ticket agency. 

He’s always on the go, rushing from one meeting to another, from one sports event to the next. He gulps his meals on the run whenever he happens to think about them. He loves chocolate sodas and makes a virtual ritual of imbibing a couple at the nearest corner stall upon every visit to New York. 

When he’s in one place for more than five minutes, Gottlieb’s usually on the telephone over which he transacts a major portion of his business. He thinks nothing of calling Chicago, St. Louis, Boston, or San Francisco at any moment or any hour and his phone bills sometimes resemble the national debt. He was absolutely lost, as helpless as if his voice had deserted him, when he found no telephone in his room at the Warriors’ training camp at Atlantic City last Fall. This year, before he took the squad to Hershey, Pa., he was assured there would be a phone at his elbow at all times.  

When the Warriors are home, Gottlieb never gets to bed before 3:00 a.m. and, as a result, he never arises until 11:00 a.m. and doesn’t appear at his Chestnut Street office until 1:00 p.m. He doesn’t know what it means to take a vacation, and his only recreation appears to be an occasional movie. He relaxes best at a baseball, football, or basketball game in which he has no interest other than to see the better team win. He’s never had the time, nor the inclination, to take up golf, bowling, or tennis, yet he says he’s never had the need of a doctor.

Probably because he was the man of the house since the age of nine, when his father died, Gotty’s always had supreme confidence in himself and it’s always been a case of “Follow me. I’ll show you how it’s done.” It is this natural leadership, plus the know-how to back it up, that has made him a strong influence in every organization of which he’s been a part. 

He has never found it easy to delegate authority and even at this stage of his career insists upon being his own traveling secretary and looking after every little detail in connection with his players and club. Eddie says he’s so used to handling everything, he wouldn’t feel right if someone were to take the details off his shoulders. 

With always an extra phone call to make or someone to see, Gotty is invariably late for meetings and makes train and plane connections at the last split second. When he does arrive, he’s as impatient as a groom to get off on his honeymoon. “Come on, come on,” says Gottlieb all aflutter to those who might have been waiting a good half-hour or more past the designated time. “What are you waiting for? Let’s get going.” 

Gottlieb is a confirmed air traveler, although he often becomes deathly sick. He figures it is better to be sick only three or four hours than 15 or 16 hours. It appears he gets train-sick, too.

Matt Goukas, who had his career with the Warriors cut short when he lost a leg in an automobile accident, likes to tell of his first plane rides with Eddie. “I was sitting with him on our first trip and, shortly after we got off the ground, Eddie requested in a hoarse whisper that I pass the container. I didn’t know what he was talking about, but luckily Jerry Fleishman, sitting across the aisle, came to my rescue.”

“On the trip back, after we played a very lousy game, by the way, I again sat with Eddie. And again, soon after the wheels had left the ground, I heard him utter a similar hoarse whisper. But this time he only got as far as ‘Pass,’ when I shot the container into his grip.

“After a two-minute interval, The Mogul complimented me, ‘Matt, that was the best assist of the night.’” 

When the team isn’t going right or a player is in a slump, he often has private talks with each player to check on their mental attitude and to probe for remedies. He doesn’t hesitate to use an old-fashioned halftime pep talk, when necessary, to get the team “up,” but usually gets more reaction by setting new goals for them to achieve, such as “let’s win this one for so-and-so.”

As much as he wants to win each and every game, Gottlieb believes in bringing his team along slowly and having them “just right “ for the stretch run and the playoffs. He believes in a leisurely preseason training camp of one month with no more than two hours of practice a day. He prefers a warm up of at least four exhibition games before starting the five months’ BAA grind.

“The payoff is in the playoffs,” he says. “And you are only cutting your own throat if you try to start the season at the peak of your game. If you do, it is impossible to maintain the fine edge over so long a season, and the result usually is a disastrous slump at a crucial stage of the race.”

Last year, the Warriors were five games behind New York’s Knickerbockers with 11 games remaining on their schedule, but they won nine of these final games to finish on top in the East. They went on to eliminate St. Louis in a hectic seven-game first-place playoff, but then ran out of gas in the championship series, losing to the red-hot darkhorse Baltimore Bullets, four games to two, after the latter had hurdled New York and Chicago. 

This defeat was one of the biggest disappointments of Gottlieb’s career, as he had counted heavily on the Warriors winning the title two years running, but, as always, he’s recovered and can scarcely wait for a new race to begin. “The pressure will be off us this year,” he says hopefully. “So maybe we will play better ball and get another crack at that title.”

For Eddie Gottlieb, that’s an understatement. Don’t sell his Warriors short! 

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