The Chosen One
NEW YORK, March 28, 2007 -- Like many people, I've spent a lot of time checking in with and following the exploits of a talented Lakers guard recently.
Believe it or not, I'm not referring to Kobe Bryant. (Haven't we covered him enough on this site in the past week?). No, I recently learned that rookie point guard Jordan Farmar is the first Jewish player in the NBA since Danny Schayes.
Now I never wanted to be a professional basketball player when I grew up. That was not my dream. Maybe it is because, as a Jewish person, there were no recognizable Jews in the NBA at that time to inspire me (the best Jewish athlete I knew was Scott Kohen, my friend at sleepaway camp). Instead, I grew up wanting to be the NBA Commissioner. For some reason, that seemed more realistic for someone like me (unfortunately I learned later on that I'm not nearly as smart as the man who currently holds that position). (Or the next in line). (Or the next-next in line)...
The NBA has become a sea of diversity. Just about every race, creed and nationality is represented these days. Black, white, Asian, Latin, European, African, Canadian, Australian, Caribbean... but no notable Jews. Of course, I never consciously thought about it until one of my Jewish friends who happened to play basketball at a Division One school brought it up. Everyone knows that Sandy Koufax is probably the best Jewish athlete of all-time, and there are others like home run champ Hank Greenberg, Olympic gold medalists Mark Spitz and Sarah Hughes and even Pete Sampras is a one-quarter Jewish (not too shabby!).
But Farmar, selected with the 26th pick in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft, has changed that. The 6-2 point guard is averaging nearly 5.0 points and 2.0 assists in 16 minutes per game as a rookie with the Lakers. His playing time and contributions on the court have dropped off in the past month as the Lakers make their playoff push, but he has shown glimpses of what he might be capable of in the future (he is very adept at going from right-to-left)... not to mention the fact that he also led UCLA all the way to the NCAA Finals last year.
Now I don't want to be the one to perpetuate stereotypes (my mother would lay on the guilt if I did that!) or be the latest Jew to "kvell" over one of our own enjoying success in sports. But we tend to make a big deal out of Jewish stars because they are becoming more and more rare (you'd the think "the chosen people" would be a bit more "blessed"), so allow me this indulgence.
Farmar's parents divorced when he was a boy. His mother, Melinda, and stepfather, Yehuda Kolani, raised Farmar in a Jewish home, took him to Israel and had him bar mitzvah-ed (I wonder what the theme of his party was...). Farmar doesnít consider himself observant, but identifies himself as part of the Jewish people. Of course, he likely got his athletic genes from his father, a former major league baseball player, yet in high school, he was named the 2004 Southern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame High School Athlete of the Year (imagine trying to fit that on a plaque).
"Iíve been around success in sports my whole life," Farmar said in a 2005 interview with a Jewish newspaper. "My father is a professional athlete. I donít want to be any different... That is part of me, of who I am. People are watching the game, the way I carry myself on and off the court, and I know that all reflects on my community and my people... I want to be an important force in the whole world, not just the Jewish community. I already hear children on the basketball court in Los Angeles talking about me and copying me and it makes me feel fantastic."
Of course, Farmar is not the first. There was Danny Shayes and his father, Dolph, who is a Hall-of-Famer. And believe it or not, UNC's record for highest career points per game in a career does not belong to Michael Jordan, James Worthy or Vince Carter. That record, along with many others, belongs to Jewish star Lennie Rosenbluth. And Knicks great Art Heyman (whose bar here in New York City is just down the street from where I live) still holds the Duke record for most points per game in a career. And he was the first pick in the NBA Draft. (How about those tidbits for your Passover Seder next week?)
Even earlier than that, Ossie Schectman, Stan Stutz, Ralph Kaplowitz, Jake Weber and Leo ďAceĒ Gottlieb were among the New York Knickerbockers playing in the Basketball Association of America (the precursor of the NBA). Of course, I never got to see them play, either. More recently, I remember all of the hype surrounding a talented Orthodox Jew, Tamir Goodman (who they called "The Jewish Jordan") who played high school ball in Brooklyn before going to Towson State (though his candle miraculously stopped burning after about eight nights).
With nine titles as a coach, the late Red Auerbach won 938 basketball games in his coaching career, coached in the All-Star Game for 11 straight years and is considered one of the best, if not the best coach of all time. Larry Brown has more than 1,000 career wins and titles in both the NBA and college as a coach. And do we think it's coincidence that legendary Knicks coach Red Holtzman won 613 games (there are 613 commandments in the Bible)? Yet who grows up wanting to be a coach (aside from Jeff Van Gundy)?
At least young Jewish girls have high-profile role models to look at and aspire to emulate. Sue Bird is a legitimate superstar, but is only half-Jewish and was not really raised in a Jewish home. One of the top prospects in next week's WNBA Draft, Maryland senior Shay Doron, is Israeli and has quite the following back home. Of course, she is not the first great Jew to play at Maryland. Tara Heiss was a legend for the Terps and played with the U.S National Team (inducted into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2003) and Lisa Schlesinger was a good role player for the Terrapins in the 1970s, helping the team win the ACC championship in 1978 and 1979 before playing professionally in the WBL with two of my favorites... Hall-of-Famer Nancy Lieberman and WNBA President Donna Orender (both members of the tribe).
Maybe it is too late for me to make it as an NBA superstar (though my co-workers will tell you I already am a superstar at the NBA), but Farmar has become a hero and an icon for those of us in the Jewish community looking for someone to root for. He gives Jewish kids something to reach for and has restored my hope that I can raise world class athlete children. (All I have to do is find a female superstar athlete to bear my children.)