When I was young my parents had this little game I called Name That Joo. You'd be watching an old movie and they'd say, see that guy on the left? Joosh. That skinny comedian on Carson? Joosh. Kirk Douglas? Joosh. Norman Mailer? Joosh. Ralph Lauren? Joosh. Baskin? Joosh. Robbins? Joosh!
Of course compared to entertainment figures and business leaders the pickings proved slimmer when it came to sports. Football was something of a wasteland. Basketball ditto. In baseball, if Sandy Koufax hadn't existed my parents and their friends would have found it necessary to invent him. No wonder so many of us had a love/hate complex - actually it was more like a hate complex - where Koufax was concerned. Every year, when the holidays rolled around, if you had the temerity to suggest, just this once, engaging in some depraved secular pleasure, like eating, or going to the movies, or playing ball, or even watching other people play ball - you'd get hit over the head with Sandy Koufax, as in, Even-Sandy-Koufax-Chose-Not-to-Pitch-in-the-World-Series-on-Yom-Kippur-and-Believe-Me-Mr-High-and-Mighty-You're-No-Sandy Koufax. And that would be all she wrote.
The point is, when one has been raised with this kind of deeply neurotic and fiercely tenacious sense of affiliation and solidarity, it warps one's head a little. For me and my friends, the Jews were like some embattled, over-achieving, small-market franchise, one whose fortunes, for all the media attention they generated, seemed forever suspended precipitously over an abyss. And if every tribe is like a sports team, then it follows that every sports team is like a tribe. A tribe with its own lore and language, its own history that both precedes and enfolds you, that links your every wayward, isolated longing to some collective enterprise. You can participate actively, you can participate passively, you can choose not to participate at all. But if you're touched by such things, you're marked for life. Chosen.
Possibly this accounts for the weird fact that I appear to take the struggles of someone like, oh, Omri Casspi say, almost personally. Casspi by the way is having a rough year. A former No. 1 pick, a slick-shooting forward who was once ranked up with Ricky Rubio, Danilo Gallinari, and Kosta Koufos for European Player of the Year, he had a rocky road in Sacramento, and has now fallen out of the rotation in Cleveland, where he was projected as a starter. "It's a real war to establish myself," Casspi acknowledged, "in the place I believe I can excel."
Such martial imagery is of course utterly boilerplate in the overheated rhetoric of professional sports. But from the NBA's first Israeli - and not incidentally, its first to have his mural outside his home arena repeatedly defaced by swastikas - the words take on an interesting gloss. A tough Jew, fighting for the very ground he stands on, making the small-market desert bloom. Hmm, where have we heard this before? Mideast, Midwest: possibly it comes to the same thing - that is, stasis and frustration. The status quo is awful, untenable, and demoralizing, and what's worse, it's never going to change. And so it goes. In the space of a few mid-season months, Casspi managed to lose most of his minutes, all of his appendix, and any last lingering hopes of a buyout to a contender.
There is, of course, no good reason I should worry myself this way over the trials of Omri Casspi, as opposed to those of any other more or less interchangeable second-tier NBA player. Or for that matter those of the ex-Laker (and one-time Southern California Jewish Athlete of the Year) Jordan Farmar. Or the spirited, but oft-vexed coaching career of Lawrence Frank.
As for those increasingly fond and protective-sounding ovations that greet Amar'e Stoudemire, on those few occasions his damaged knees still carry him onto the Garden court? These too appear to spring from a source, perhaps the same source, beyond all reason, a source deeper than his talent for dunking the basketball - and, just as often, watching the man he's guarding dunk the basketball, too. No, the outpouring of affection for Stoudemire is, I believe, at least partially ethnocentric in origin, a function of his no longer just talking a good game about his (rather questionable, in all honesty) Hebraic ancestry - "If you research history," he enthused on his 2010 visit to Israel, "I think we are all Jewish. It's the original culture" - but seeming determined on every level to embody it. And I don't mean the little Star of David tattoo on his left hand. I don't mean observing the holidays, or wearing a tallis under the wedding huppah, or appearing so winningly on Jon Stewart. I mean the remarkable grace he's shown in his new role as a displaced figure. An underdog. A humbled, crippled titan, boxed in by adversities on all sides, warding off threats both internal and external - a man whose very name is oddly and intrinsically divided - and who must constantly negotiate a peace for himself, a little green zone between the orthodoxy of Melo-ball and the surgical strikes of a scalpel, all the while taking care not to vent his fury on the innocent (like that Miami fire extinguisher) along the way. Keeping the faith, as it were.
Or, as the man himself put it so nicely in the land of his, or somebody's, forefathers: "It's all about love and peace, coming together and having fun."
And who can argue with that? Who'd even want to? Let's face it, if you're a Knicks fan you find Melo easy to admire but difficult to love. With Amar'e this is not a problem. You admire him because you love him. And you love him because, well: you just do. He's a mensch.
While I'm at it, let me just add that when summer rolls around, I'd like to see Sam Fuld catch on as a starting player, and Ike Davis hit consistently for power, and Ian Kinsler recover his batting stroke, and Kevin Youkilis re-jew-venate himself in New York, and if opposing hitters would stop lighting up poor Scotty Feldman quite so regularly, that would be nice, too. And there's no good reason for me to care about any of those guys either, frankly. There's only a bad reason, a lazy, reflexive, superficial reason.
We are talking about tribalism here. The old Us against Them.
My own history as a Joo in Sports was, I'm afraid, utterly typical in its trajectory. I was once upon a time, back in ninth grade, the best Jewish football player in my hometown. In fact I was the only Jewish football player. My father was president of the temple; my friends were either student newspaper geeks or potheads; my older brothers were borderline geniuses who listened to Wagner and ran their own photography business. In some kind of twisted Darwinian adaptation, I had gone the way of the jock. That I was not a borderline genius was obvious to everyone. Lest anyone be in doubt on this subject I'd done my best to prove it. First by tanking in school, then by signing up for a sport I didn't like, in a program notable for its number one state ranking, its rigor and discipline and generally high standard of meanness.
Once on the team - there were no cuts - I went out for center, a position for which I had the wrong body type and virtually no natural aptitude. I didn't care. I wanted to mix it up with the big boys in the center of the scrum. To pretend that my scrawny physique and slow reaction times were somehow assets rather than disabilities. Later, when I read the existentialists in college, I understood this better, this business of pretending, of acting and willing yourself into a new being, a new freedom. At the time all I knew was it felt good to play football, to wear a helmet and knee pads, to hit people for a change rather than worry about being hit.
And here's the thing: to a great extent I succeeded. At least at first. The same coaches who'd greeted me at first with cries of ironic condescension - King Cohen!- began to warm to my work ethic, my beginner's abandon. They'd use me to make points in practice, to illustrate plays, model stances. Soon I was getting into games. Running snaps. Making big hits on the special teams. Even my painful new habit of fracturing roughly one finger per game - those long, slender, nice-Jewish-boy fingers, which for years had trembled the vibrato on my violin - seemed honorable, hard-won. I wore my splints like medals. We began to talk about next year, when we'd go out for varsity, when we'd have the good locker room and play on the good field across the street, and the games would be written about in the newspaper, and hundreds of people would come out on a Friday night to watch us play.
And then next year came around, and I went out for the first day of double sessions, and it was like I'd gone to the wrong field. There arose over Egypt a new pharaoh who did not know Joseph. There were new coaches, new players. All of my peers it seemed had put on four or five inches and 30 pounds of muscle, and I was still the same. The humidity was tropical. We performed a number of agility drills in the most un-agile way imaginable. The head coach, a legendary figure in the state, was already furious with us, and we hadn't even put on helmets yet. Then we put on helmets. We started hitting each other with a vengeance. In the past it had always been a good feeling, that first contact. But my muscles had lost their memory. It wasn't just that they couldn't remember how to do these things - they couldn't remember why they'd wanted to. My friends, who were having their own problems, steered clear, lest they too fall victim to whatever disabling germ had infected me. The morning lasted forever, the break was no break, and when afternoon came it stretched on, or seemed to, until evening. By the time we were through, my knees were jelly and my lungs felt emphysemic. I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn't remember ever having breath. I limped into the locker room, wondering if I should go ahead and quit right now or wait until tomorrow and then quit. It was not a very consequential issue, even to me, but it was the nearest thing I had to a thought at that point. Then someone yelled something incredibly loudly over my head.
And there goes the kike!
It took me a second to understand that this was directed at me - the only kike in the room. Let it be known: I had never been called a kike before. Certainly not by the star of the football team, the son of that aforementioned legendary head coach, and a truly ripped and formidable athlete in his own right, a lightning-quick halfback who went on to a glorious college career at the state university and now, decades later - there may really be a God - is a fat bald guy who sells sporting goods. Let it also be known: I had never met this person before in my life. And yet somehow he'd already marked me like a predator, had already chosen me, and on the basis of what? My father's name and nose. Joosh! Only it was no game now.
Here's the thing: I knew in that moment that everything had changed. I was never going to be a jock. That whole road was tilting off steeply to one side and I was going to have to find another. And I would have to start right now, too. Because it was not just an Us/Them moment, but a Before/After one: a lot would depend on how I reacted to it.
So how did I react, you ask?
Well, I didn't go ahead and quit the football team, as it happened, though I very much wanted to. I finished out the year and hardly played at all and yet somehow managed to break a couple of fingers anyway. It was a miserable season.
But that's getting ahead of myself. In that moment, what I did was kept on walking to my locker. I kept on walking to my locker and ignored the whole thing - he'd have beaten the shit out of me anyway - enduring it, or trying to, stoically and with a certain extremely black humor, a humor as dark as espresso beans, as the darkest, bitterest chocolate. I stood there in the shower alone, trying to wash the insult off me, and at the same time bathing in it too. It was as if I already knew on some level that someday, not too long from now, I'd dine out on this very moment, would regale the hippie-lefty-Jewboy friends I was destined to make in college with it late some night, over a series of smoldering joints. I'd make of it an entertainment. An essay, a story, a little sport of my own.
Because let's face it, that's what the guys in my tribe do. We feed off the hurt. Ask Omri Casspi. That's the fuel for the war we all fight: trying to establish ourselves in a place we excel. And then, and arguably only then, will Amar'e's lofty spiritual vision of love and peace indeed take hold at last, and all the tribes come together, and have fun.