Basketball, Passover, and Justice: Let My People Go... to the Playoffs?
As you sat at your Passover seder table, you might’ve taken note of feet that didn’t quite reach the floor, of short arms that couldn’t quite reach the charoset, and of pillows not for the lean but for the boost in the seat – and that’s just for your grandparents!
Jews, especially those from Eastern Europe, tend to be short. It’s a little odd then, that basketball was once a game considered the special purview of Jews. Paul Gallico, then-sports editor at the New York Daily News, wrote in the mid-1930s, at a time when Jews dominated the hardwood:
…basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background because the game places a premium on an alert mind, and flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-Alec-ness… Jews tend to the short and so have God-given better balance and speed.
Yes, you read that correctly. There was a time when a lack of height was seen as an advantage in the city game.
Spring time is the time of Pesach, and it pleases me that the NBA playoffs coincide so neatly. The two mesh with a certain elegance.
Pesach begins with the seder. We follow the rituals: the four glasses of wine, the hiding of the afikomen, the goods on the seder plate. Watch any group of rabid NBA fans during the playoffs, and you’ll see similar sacraments: a certain jersey must be worn, there is an established spot in which one must sit, there are special foods that must be served – all are done to ensure good luck and evoke memories of great games.
At Passover, we read the Haggadah, the story of the Exodus must be told. Sit for a few minutes during any Cavs-Pistons game with an older guy, and he’ll probably admit that while LeBron is a fair player, he must also tell you of Oscar Robertson’s triple-double season of 1961-62 when the Big O averaged 30.8 points, 12.5 rebounds, and 11.4 assists per game for Cincinnati. A triple-double for a 72 game season-no one had accomplished this before, and despite Jason Kidd’s run in 2006-07, no one has done it since.
Most fitting, however, at this season, is a verse from Mishpatim, Exodus 23:9: “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt.”
As the NBA has changed into a business where 75% of the players are Black, we now see men of all colors and backgrounds working together. Jews did not oppress the stranger to the league; they embraced them. Red Holzman and Red Auerbach were among the first to welcome men of color to their teams – just so long, of course, as long as they could pass or score, rebound or play defense. Twelve-time NBA All-Star Dolph Schayes didn’t care to whom he threw an outlet pass. Cleveland’s LeBron James and David Blatt didn’t disagree as a Black man and a Jew ; they disagreed over how to run the floor as a team. When racist (Jewish) Clippers owner Donald Sterling showed his true colors, it was (Jewish) NBA commissioner Adam Silver who banned him for life from the league.
Disturbingly, it is outside of the NBA but still inside the U.S. that racism is stronger than ever. The U.S. first brought slaves from Africa to this continent in 1619 to work the fields near Jamestown, VA. Despite the Emancipation Proclamation, despite people of all races fighting side by side against the Nazis and fascists, and despite our work during the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, our Black brothers and sisters still face overwhelming racism.
The race-baiting we hear from many of today’s politicians and their backers should scare us both as humans and as Jews. If overtly racist men find themselves in power in this country, they are likely to take every opportunity to devastate the work that has been done in the battle for social justice and diversity.
At this time of remembrance, as Americans Jews celebrate as a free people, I think again of the German Lutheran Pastor Niemöller, imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau from 1937-1945:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
This Passover, embrace the stranger and stand up to hate. Oh, and go Warriors!