Perhaps it is no coincidence that two of the key figures in this week’s off-court basketball drama were Jews — Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner, was heard on audiotape issuing a series of odious racist remarks, and NBA commissioner Adam Silver, who after a swift and judicious investigation banned Sterling for life. The history of Jews and basketball is a long and, on balance, storied one. As Marc Tracy wrote for The New Republic, Jews pioneered the “city game,” were instrumental in integrating its teams and leagues, and contributed to the phenomenal growth of the NBA as coaches and in front offices.
Sterling stained that legacy. Jewish organizations, out of genuine disgust over his racism and no doubt in the interest of defanging anti-Semites, quickly issued statements condemning Sterling and calling for stern action. A particularly poignant reminder from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism was issued on Yom Hashoa: “As Jews, we know…what can happen when people do not stand up and condemn the kind of hateful remarks Mr. Sterling allegedly has made.”
Sterling also managed to insult Jews in his racist rant, telling his erstwhile girlfriend, apparently approvingly, that in Israel, “the blacks are just treated like dogs.” Israel, like nearly every Western country, continues to struggle with the specter of racial discrimination, from inequitable treatment of Ethiopian Jews to its dilemma over African refugees. But to condemn Israelis in such vulgar, generalized terms — and sully the deeply multicultural and multiracial society that is modern-day Israel — now seems par for the course for Sterling, who appears to divide the world into black and white in more ways than one.
Sterling’s exile from basketball, however, should not allow any of us to be complacent about the state of race relations in the United States. As B’nai B’rith International said in denouncing Sterling, “Despite the major strides America has taken to thwart racial inequality [since the Civil Rights Act of 1964], this hateful rhetoric serves as a wake-up call that there is still much work to be done.” Happily, Jewish organizations are still deeply engaged in that work.