Thursday, June 04, 2015

Are the Cleveland Cavaliers a Jewish Team?

I've always been of the opinion that one should, first and foremost, cheer for one's own hometown sports teams. For example, I've never understood how someone from Detroit could randomly choose another NFL team as "their team" instead of the local Detroit Lions (despite their lack of a single Super Bowl championship). However, when it comes to the playoffs, if one's own team isn't playing then it is acceptable to adopt a team and cheer for that team.

Here in Detroit, it's become the accepted practice to cheer for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA postseason when the Detroit Pistons are not playing. While the Cavaliers might be one of the Pistons' closest rivals, Detroiters feel a connection with the team and can't resist liking them. Such has certainly been the case with me.

Rabbi Jason Miller With Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and former player Zydrunas Ilgauskas
With Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and former player Zydrunas Ilgauskas at a Friends of the IDF Event in Cleveland

Owned by Jewish philanthropist Dan Gilbert, the Cavs have become something of a first cousin to the Detroit Pistons. One might find it odd to enter the Downtown Detroit headquarters of Quicken Loans, the company Gilbert owns, and see a basketball court bedecked in Cleveland Cavaliers colors and logos. For Detroiters, however, this seems natural. In both Detroit and Cleveland, we've found a mutual appreciation for Gilbert, who has used his philanthropy and business savvy to bring a dual renaissance to Detroit and Cleveland, two major U.S. cities that have struggled financially in the past several decades. (Gilbert owns a casino in both cities, the Quicken Loans Arena ("The Q") in Cleveland, the Lake Erie Monsters hockey team, the Cleveland Gladiators arena football team, a large Downtown Cleveland office for Quicken Loans employees there, dozens of Detroit-based companies, and has bought over 75 buildings in Downtown Detroit).

Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt
With my son and Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt

Not only have the Cavs become the adopted team during the NBA playoffs for Detroit Pistons fans, but recent articles have called the Cavs "Israel's Team." Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even phoned Head Coach David Blatt, who has Israeli citizenship, to wish him luck and tell him that the entire State of Israel was behind him. Almost a decade before the Cavs hired an Israeli coach, my first experience with Dan Gilbert's Cavs had a connection to Israel. I was invited to Quicken Loans Arena in 2006 to watch the Cavaliers take on Maccabi Tel Aviv in a pre-season game. The night before I attended a dinner at a synagogue in the Cleveland suburbs where Dan Gilbert was honored by Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. The two teams competed again before this season, but this time around it was more personal because Blatt used to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv.

My son and his friends with Cleveland Cavaliers Coach David Blatt

I would argue that the Cavs are a Jewish team too. If they win the NBA championship this year (the series begins tonight), they wouldn't be the first team with a Jewish owner and Jewish coach -- the Detroit Pistons won in 2004 with Larry Brown as coach and Bill Davidson as the majority owner. But there's a very Jewish feel to this team in which Gilbert and star player LeBron James had to perform teshuva before the season to repair their fractured relationship. When LeBron returned to Cleveland after his sojourn in Miami he had to apologize to Cleveland fans for his undignified exit a few years back and Gilbert had to make amends to LeBron for his unprofessional public letter. There's certainly a Yom Kippur sermon in there about healing relationships.

Josh Mitnick, writing in the Wall Street Journal yesterday, expressed the love Israelis have for the Cavs because of their head coach. Blatt, who grew up in Framingham, Massachusetts and played basketball at Princeton, won a gold medal playing for the USA national team in the 1981 Maccabiah Games and was one of the most successful coaches in the Israeli Basketball League. He immigrated to Israel in 1981 and served in the IDF. Ten years later he married an Israeli bride, Kinneret. Israelis are united behind the first Israeli coach of an NBA basketball team who could take his team all the way to the championship in only his first year with the team.

Mitnick writes, "After Cleveland completed a sweep of the Atlanta Hawks last week in the Eastern Conference Finals, Blatt got a call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who wished him a 'mabruk,' Arabic for congratulations, and instructed him to 'keep winning.' After thanking the Israeli leader, Blatt replied 'that the honor is mine to represent our country.'"

In a press conference, Blatt said, "I have been fortunate enough to hear from the Prime Minister of Israel, to the then Prime Minister and president of Russia (Dmitry Medvedev), and there's nothing I would like better than to hear from (President Barack) Obama. That sort of covered all the bases, wouldn't it?"

I haven't always been behind the Cavaliers. Like many basketball fans I've long detested LeBron James, but I've come around and will be cheering for them to beat the Golden State Warriors. One reason I've changed my tune is that LeBron very kindly and generously autographed a basketball for my son on his 11th birthday earlier this year. I'm willing to grant King James a fresh slate and I'll happily be cheering on this Cleveland Cavaliers team with both a Jewish and Israeli flavor.

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