Ever since Ossie Schectman scored the first point in NBA history on Nov. 1, 1946, basketball and the American Jewish community have been inextricably linked. Fast forward 67 years, and Israeli-American contributions to the league are more numerous than ever. The community’s most recent success story is David Blatt, who has gone from making Israel’s Euroleague team a championship squad to being charged with doing the same for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Celebrating the latest win for his community is Shawn Evenhaim, chairman of the Israeli American Council (and a noted Lakers fan). He told us why the new coach is the man for the job and what pro basketball means to Jews worldwide.
BALLnROLL.com: How is David Blatt’s new position noteworthy in the world of basketball, as well as the Jewish-American community?
Shawn Evenhaim: First, David has a great record. When he was still the coach of Maccabi [Tel Aviv], they were the underdogs. Now they are the Euroleague champions. At least from the American perspective, he really symbolizes what we are. He is American-born, then he became Israeli, and now he is going to be an American-Israeli in the NBA. For us, he’s one of us, because we all love and admire the United States and Israel. We enjoy both worlds. As a person, he’s shown that even when other people didn’t believe he can make it, he could create a winning team. He’s able to establish this very unique connection with players. I think he’s going to bring new spirit to the Cavaliers’ team.
BnR: As a fan yourself, do you believe an Israeli-American coach will it spark increased interest in the sport for American Jews?
SE: I think for sure that’s going to happen. Most Israeli-Americans are fans of sport. In Israel, there are two big sports: soccer and basketball. Basketball was always big because of Maccabi Tel Aviv, they won the Euroleague. I can tell you that in L.A., more Israeli-Americans will go to the game. I think [a shared heritage] brings something and it makes a connection.
BnR: What about Dave Blatt makes him the right man for the job?
SE: I watched him throughout his career in Israel and I was impressed by how effective he was. People are always skeptics, and we are always complaining about coaches—something’s wrong with the team, the coach must go, the coach is bad. But he was able to really build on the team’s ability and was able to prove that, although it doesn’t take a day or two, if you believe in the vision and you have the right team, you can get to the championships.
BnR: The sport of basketball can easily trace its roots back to the Israeli-American community. How have the two grown together?
SE: We all know the history of basketball started with the Jewish community, but I think that throughout the years, especially in Los Angeles—Los Angeles is a place where a lot of Jews live; the biggest Jewish communities are in LA and New York—they’re definitely involved in the game, from the fan perspective, from the ownership perspective. The last commissioner was Jewish, the current commissioner is Jewish. So I think that the Jewish community has brought a lot in general to the league and the NBA today. The Jewish community is part of the community of the United States, and we’re proud always to be part of it.
BnR: Several Jewish-American players currently play in the NBA, including Jordan Farmar, Gal Mekel and Amare Stoudemire. Who in your opinion have been standout Jewish contributors to the world of basketball?
SE: The one I can think of that’s made the biggest impact was the prior commissioner. [David Stern] took the league from one point to the other with his vision and his ability. I think that’s inspiring from leadership, community and business perspectives. He’s definitely one in my opinion to look up to and admire, and I hope that the current commissioner will do the same. We’ve seen the whole league transform under [Stern’s] leadership, and we still have a lot to learn from him.
As far as players, I remember watching a video of Omri Casspi when he was on a trip to the U.S., as a matter of fact when he was 12 around the time of his bar mitzvah. He is in New York standing right in front of the arena, and he says, “I’m going to play here one day.” As a 12-year-old kid growing up in Israel who loved basketball, knowing and saying and believing that he will play in the best league in the world, in the NBA, is inspiring. I tell the story sometimes: just believe in it, work hard and you’ll make it. Omri Casspi, his story always comes to mind as inspirational.
BnR: The Houston Rockets’ Omri Casspi is definitely one of the biggest names when it comes to Jewish basketball, and he even played on the Cavs from 2011-2013. Getting started on the Sacramento Kings in 2009, Casspi broke boundaries by becoming the first Israeli native to play in the American league. What does that mean to the community?
SE: To the people who grew up in Israel, [Casspi] helps them see that Israel is such a great country that contributes to the world, not just to Israel. Yes, there’s a lot of issues. Yes, everyone likes to bring up the war. But there are also great things that are coming out of Israel from the high-tech industry, from the biotech industry, things that people don’t know of—almost everything in your life, you have Israel with you somehow. So, for Israelis, they just learned in the last 20 years that, even though Israel is a small country, the world is a big place and anyone can do anything. The fact that someone like Omri Casspi grew up in Israel, played on a small team in the European league and now plays for the NBA, that I think is inspiring to many Israelis.
BnR: Should there be efforts made to increase interest in playing basketball among the younger generations of Jews?
SE: Yes, I think that any sport is great for kids, and I don’t think that only kids that are athletes should play sports. For all kids, it brings them confidence. Something that I love about it is that it’s not about winning only, it’s about confidence, it’s about feeling being part of the group. It creates friendship. It creates leadership. Everyone should play.
BnR: What is particularly heartening about kids setting their sights high on playing in the NBA?
SE: The community service and giving back; I think that’s essential, and I love how the league is doing it. When the All-Star Weekend was in L.A., I loved to see the players go out into the community, where they build, and they clean, and they do things. At the end of the day, people can understand that yes, they’re famous, yes, they’re stars, but they’re human beings and they care about their community and they give back. That’s what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter who you are, how rich you are, how good you are—you’re a someone, and as someone you have responsibility for the rest of the community. That’s something we truly believe in the Israeli-American community. We are grateful for this great country, and we all share the exact same values.