I’ve been thinking a lot about basketball lately. It could be because I miss the NBA. Maybe it’s because I’ve been watching ESPN’s The Last Dance, the 10-part documentary about Michael Jordan and the reign of the Chicago Bulls in the ‘90s. Perhaps it’s because I can’t go outside. Whatever the reason, I haven’t just been thinking about specific games or highlights, I’ve been thinking about what basketball has taught me and why it’s been so important to me for so many years.
Turns out, my relationship with basketball is pretty, pretty Jewish.
Basketball is a Jewish sport. While there are hardly any current Jewish NBA players, the way we talk you’d think the Lakers were called the Latkes. Believe it or not, the Jewish people have a deep-rooted history with basketball. Uncut Gems was not a coincidence. Did you know a Jewish player scored the first NBA basket ever?
That’s why it should be no surprise that I sat in my basement as a Jewish kid in Minnesota and decided one day I would play alongside Kevin Garnett. I just, like, made that decision? Sure, the odds were against me, but like Crocs and other great underdog stories, that didn’t stop me from believing it could happen.
My parents bought me a Little Tikes basketball hoop (you know the one) and I signed up for basketball lessons. I even remember asking for a Timberwolves jersey for Hanukkah. And also the next Hanukkah. That’s right, home and away jerseys. I was committed.
Summer camp probably gave me too much confidence in terms of athletics. I would dominate as I played against campers half my size. I’d hyperventilate just thinking about playing in front of my crush during Color Wars. My friends and I built a makeshift court in our cabin, using duct tape to outline the three point line as if we weren’t just going to dunk on each other. Yes, it ended in our counselors yelling at us.
Then there was JCC basketball: the most competitive league to ever exist. Your friend would block your shot, make fun of you, then you’d have to get them a bar/bat mitzvah gift the next week. It was brutal. The hoops were lowered, so what?
I was 13, going through a turtleneck phase, and wholeheartedly thought I would play in the NBA, or at the very least win two NCAA Championships with the North Carolina Tar Heels. God bless my parents.
Little did I know my NBA dreams were about to be crushed.
At age 15 I started playing for my high school. To nobody’s surprise but mine, it was not like summer camp at all. They didn’t even let us take breaks for snacks. Naturally, that’s when I stopped having fun. I was competing against more people… taller people… I had to skip Saturday tournaments for services. Someone even threw a team potluck on Yom Kippur. Wtf?
I could read the writing on the wall. It said, “Hey Jon, so about this basketball thing…”
But I continued to work hard, started lifting weights, got a scholarship, and eventually… no I’m kidding. I obviously do not and have never played professional basketball. I’m under 6 feet, hated running the mile in gym, and most importantly refuse to touch sweaty people. The only similarity between me and NBA players is that we both probably high five too much.
So yes, my basketball dreams ended in high school. I remember coming home and crying when I found out I didn’t make the sophomore team. It might seem silly looking back (it definitely is), but for years of my life it’s all I wanted to do. Seriously. It was my first passion, my first commitment, the first thing I actually worked hard for. It was like High School Musical but I wasn’t good at basketball or singing. As a result, it was also a harsh real world lesson about failure and frustration.
To me, basketball isn’t just a Jewish sport because of our history with it or because the hoops remind me of bagels. Rather, it’s because of the lessons it taught me. The need to trust those around you. To share the ball and be selfless. To have a gameplan. To play until the final whistle. To always remember to bring nosh in case you need an energy boost.
And the most important thing I learned: the need to adapt and make the most with what you have.
It’s the story of the oil lasting during Hanukkah. It’s why we eat matzah during Passover. It’s the ability to find a way forward when things aren’t working out, whether you’re The Maccabees or the Boston Celtics in the 1969 Finals. It’s like Moses always said, “Life is full of Red Seas, it’s up to you to find a way to cross them.” I just assume he started saying that. Probably really annoying.
Today, I’ve had multiple career changes, I’ve moved across the country, I’ve had relationships end, I’ve lost touch with good friends, I’ve made new ones. My life now is not what I expected it to be even a few years ago.
It’s becoming easier for my 13-year-old self to look at me with his braces and say, “What happened? What about the NBA? What about Kevin Garnett? You sit at a desk now?”
As a kid, everything was simple. You ran around, watched Malcom in the Middle, ate some Trix Yogurt. Evidence didn’t exist and rationality was just a word you couldn’t pronounce.
My younger self confused wanting to follow a dream with wanting to be happy. I said I wanted to play in the NBA. What I truly wanted was to find something where I could be challenged, grow, make an impact, and inspire others. Basketball was just the only way I thought I could do that. I mean, I was like 9 so it was either that or wanting to be the president.
In high school, I remember thinking I was a failure because I was “giving up” on something I put so much work into. It’s a familiar feeling even as an adult.
As I’ve grown, I’ve realized that some things are out of our control. There will always be someone more talented. Someone faster. Someone better at shooting. Everything won’t work out like we thought. What we want one day may be different the next. For whatever reason, you might have to shift paths. It’s not settling, it’s not hedging. It’s not a plan B. It’s just a different plan. Spoiler alert: Life is weird and unpredictable. You think our boy Jonah planned to get stuck in a whale?
We need to have lofty goals, take big risks, fail, bounce back, work hard, and ultimately be able to adapt when things aren’t going our way. The most important thing is that we find a path forward and find happiness in whatever’s next. That’s what basketball taught me. And if that’s not the most Jewish thing ever, I don’t know what is.
So I may not be an NBA star, but I’ll never turn down a game of L-O-X. And honestly, I love that for me.
All images courtesy Jon Savitt.