Opper, Bernie : Jews In Sports @ Virtual Museum

Opper, Bernie

Bernard Opper

One of the greatest Jewish players in the 1930s, Opper was a three-time Southeast Conference selection while at the University of Kentucky. An All-America in 1939, he went on to play professionally in the National Basketball League (NBL) for the Detroit Eagles from 1939-41, and then played four years with the Philadelphia Sphas (the nickname stood for the South Philadelphia Hebrew Association), appearing on two championship teams in the American Basketball League.

Birth and Death Dates:
b. Sept. 1, 1915 - d. Feb. 24, 2000

Career Highlights:
In the late 1930s, Opper was one of the best players for the Kentucky Wildcats, one of the top teams in the country. A New York native who played basketball at the Bronx YMHA, Opper saw the Wildcats play at Madison Square Garden when he was in high school and wrote to Wildcat coach Adolph Rupp, asking for a chance to play for Kentucky. Considered a reliable ballhandler, passer, and defender, Opper made the most of his opportunity when he joined the Wildcats.

In 1937, Opper played on the Kentucky varsity as a sophomore and helped lead the Wildcats to a 14-5 record (5-3 in conference) and the SEC tournament championship as they defeated Tennessee 39-25 in the final. He appeared in 22 games that season and averaged 3.4 points per game (fourth on the team).

The following season (1938), Opper was named first team All-SEC and first team All-SEC tournament as Kentucky improved to 13-4 and won the regular season SEC with a 6-0 conference record. The No. 1 seed in the in the SEC tournament, the Wildcats were upset by Tulane in the first round, 38-36, as Opper scored seven points (second most on the team). He finished the season with a 5.7 points per game average, third on the team.

During his senior year (1939), Opper had an oustanding season as he reprised his first team All-SEC, and All-SEC tournament placement, and was also named Converse first team All-America. Opper captained the Wildcats (the first Jew to captain in any sport at Kentucky) leading them to a record of 16-4 and the SEC tournament title with a 46-38 win over Tennessee. The team's fifth leading scorer with 4.7 points per game during the season, Opper stepped up when needed and scored a game-high 13 points in the SEC final against Tennessee. He finished his career with 265 total points in 59 career games.

After graduating from Kentucky, Opper became a professional basketball player for the next nine years in the National Basketball League and the American Basketball League, the top pro leagues before the founding of the NBA in 1946 (the NBA was formed when the Basketball Association of America merged with the NBL in 1949 to form the NBA). In 1939-40, the year after graduating, Opper joined the Detroit Eagles of the Midwest-based NBL and played in 27 games for the team. The Eagles finished the season with a record of 17-10 and in second place in the Eastern Division, but lost in the playoffs to the Akron Firestone Non-Skids (the NBL was founded in 1937 by a number of industrial companies). Opper, who averaged almost four points per game during the regular season, scored 15 points in the playoff series. Two of his teammates that year were Jewish players Irv Torgoff and Nat Frankel.

The following year, Opper began the year with the Eagles and appeared in five games for the team before switching leagues and playing for the Philadelphia Sphas. The Sphas, which had been founded by Eddie Gottlieb and some high school friends as a barnstorming team in the early 1920s, and are considered one of the greatest pro teams in the first half of the twentieth century. The Sphas joined the ABL in 1933 and dominated the league for 15 years (winning seven championships in that time). Opper played four seasons with the Sphas. His consistent performances helped them win two championships during his tenure.

After capturing the league title in 1943, the Sphas lost the championship the following year to the Wilmington Bombers in a seven-game final series. In 1944-45, Opper was the teamís fourth leading scorer (167 points in 29 games) as the Sphas (22-8) avenged the previous yearís defeat by beating Wilmington in the first round and Baltimore in the finals to win the ABL championship (it was the last championship in Sphas history). The following year, they returned to the finals but lost to Baltimore, 4-1.

Opper played two more seasons in the ABL, registering a career-high 347 points (second of the team) in 1946-47 for the Sphas (19-14) who were upset by the Trenton Tigers (17-17) in the playoffs. He moved to the Jersey City Atoms in 1947-48 and played in only 10 games (9.4 average) before retiring.

New York City

Career Dates:
Opper played guard at the University of Kentucky from 1936-1939. He then played in the NBL with the Detroit Eagles and in the ABL with the Philadelphia Sphas and Jersey City.

Physical description:
6'0", 185 pounds

Use links below to navigate through the basketball section of Jews In Sports.

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encyclopedia of JEWS in sports, by Bernard Postal, Jesse Silver, and Roy Silver (New York: Bloch Publishing Co., 1965)
Inside Sports Magazine: College Basketball, by Mike Douchant with Jim Nantz (Detroit: Visible Ink Press, 1997)
Ronald Encyclopedia of Basketball, edited by William G. Mokray (Ronald Press: 1962)
Big Blue: 100 Years of Kentucky Wildcat Basketball, by Michael Bradley (McGraw Hill, 2002)

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