Tribe lured to hoops by economics, history, and love of game

American Jews’ overwhelming dominance of the business side of professional basketball slipped awkwardly into the spotlight April 29, when National Basketball Association Commissioner Adam Silver announced harsh sanctions against Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, at a press conference in New York. Silver levied fines and a lifetime ban against Sterling, who had been caught on tape expressing racist attitudes toward black people.

During the question-and-answer session, a sportswriter named Howard Megdal (who once wrote a book called The Baseball Talmud) asked whether the fact that both Silver and Sterling were Jewish had affected Silver’s response to Sterling’s racist tirade.

“I think my response was as a human being,” Silver said.

David Leonard
David Leonard

The interaction highlighted not only the predominance of Jewish ownership in the NBA but also the near-lack of African-American owners (Michael Jordan famously owns the Charlotte Bobcats). “People have difficulty talking about [the] conflicts, tensions, the differential privileges,” said David Leonard, associate professor and chair of the Department of Critical Culture, Gender, and Race Studies at WSU and author of the 2012 book After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness. “I think moments like this become a moment of anxiety for many in the Jewish community,” Leonard said.

“For much of the first half of the 20th century, Jews were very involved in basketball as players,” he said. “Especially among second-generation Jewish immigrants, this became a means of asserting one’s American identity, one’s physical prowess.”

Read more in The Jewish Daily Forward