The Sports Rabbi recently sat down with the author of a brand new book Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African American Hoopsters in the Holy Land, David Goldstein and discussed an amazing phenomenon that has transcended Israeli basketball over the past 40 years. There have been many African American basketball players who have plied their trade in Israel and their stories are simply fascinating, from those who have moved to Israel on a permanent basis, converted and have served in the Israel Defense Forces. Enjoy this conversation and make sure to pick up the book!
Why did you write this book?
“It really came up on a visit to Israel, I was visiting my grandparents and my grandmother had her friends over. I mentioned something about being from Toronto and they just completely lit up and started raving about Anthony Parker. They called up a ziskeit and a mensch and I just thought the fact that they not only knew who he was but loved him beyond as being a player, but as a person was really fascinating to me. An African American basketball player [that] played in Israel and it got me thinking. It began with researching the subject and that ultimately led 10 years of work and eventually to the publication of the book.”
You spoke with over 40 players for this book. What was your biggest challenge when speaking with these players to get what you needed for the book?
“It’s a bit of a cop out answer but I really didn’t have an issue. The biggest challenge was getting in touch with players initially. Finding email addresses, finding phone numbers. But I was so pleasantly surprised, you know you have to look at the context, no one has ever heard of me. I’m a Canadian writer with no big name, no guarantee that these stories are ever gonna get published, and when I spoke to the players I asked them not about pick and rolls or jump shots but very personal things about their lives; Their race, upbringing, identity, family and they were completely open, they were completely honest. They shared things that were very, very personal. They didn’t need to be as personal as they were and the book is much better because of it.”
After talking to everyone what was the most shocking part of the experience?
“The funniest thing that happened was actually live. I talk about so many positive things about Israel but one of the challenges that anyone who visits Israel will know is personal space is a little bit different, there is a bit more aggression day to day, a bit more in your face. I was interviewing Cory Carr, we were sitting in a cafe in Raanana in a place that was pretty secluded and a group of people saw that we were doing an interview, were a little bit interested and over the course of the interview started moving to tables closer to us and ended up right next to us. Cory gets a call on his cell phone so we pause the interview he takes the call from another African American basketball player asking for tips where to take his mother who’s visiting. Cory is having the conversation in a normal volume and half way through Cory’s conversation, a short conversation, a women at the table next to us says ‘excuse me sir, you’re not alone here do you mind getting off the phone’.
Cory says I’m on my phone I’m allowed to be on my phone it’s a free country. They get into a debate right in front of me. I’m recording the whole thing for my interview and eventually they finished the conversation and he says have a good lunch turns to me and just says ‘that’s Israeli society right there’. I couldn’t help but laugh to actually witness the thing the players describe live and how well he handled it. But at the same time the players all talked about how that abrasiveness is the flip side of the warmth. It wasn’t a real complaint, it was a bit of a chuckle and an interesting thing to witness.”
Some of the African American players choose to stay in Israel for life, others also choose to convert. Why do you think some convert? They can live happily in Israel without converting so from your experience talking to them what was the appeal?
“A lot of players grew up Christian but weren’t necessarily engaged in it. That was the religion they were raised in but they didn’t feel the same connection. There was something about being in Israel, being in the Jewish country and feeling connected to it. In some cases it was being connected to a woman they met here and becoming one hundred percent aligned with that. One great example was Fred Campbell. I know there were some stories in the 70s and early 80s where there were media reports that conversions were skeptical or questionable. I spoke to Fred Campbell and he had gotten his citizenship before he converted. He wanted to convert because he loved his wife. He felt connected to Israel, and he felt a genuine appreciation for the religion and he’s told me he gets laughed at by his friends because he’s correcting them not to take the meat fork for the dairy meal and vice versa. He wants to make sure the holidays are done right. So it’s personal in each circumstance but in most cases it was a genuine connection to the country, a feeling they found themselves if they hadn’t found themselves in their initial religion and being in the right place to find themselves.”
For those who go back to their countries of origin, what do you think are their strengths as ambassadors and where do you think they could still do more work?
“I used the example of Anthony Parker wearing number 18. When I speak about Israel and say how fondly I feel about it and how amazing a place I think it is, my name is David Goldstein, my mother is from here, it only carries so much weight. It’s very easy to say of course you think that or that’s biased or you come from a certain perspective. When Anthony Parker, an African-American basketball player, chooses to wear number 18 — you can’t choose the name on the back of the jersey, that’s your name, you can’t choose the team on the front, that’s your team. You can choose your number though. It’s the one thing you can choose to represent you and he chooses of all numbers 18 (numerical amount of the word Chai, life) because it’s a tribute to Israel and he’s inviting that question and inviting that scrutiny. That carries a lot more weight because he’s been everywhere, he has no discernible connection to the country. Anthony Parker, Deon Thomas, speaking to JNF and speaking to UJA, and David Blu doing the same thing, it carries more weight when they say it and I think there’s a ton of value there. As far as what more they can do, I think a lot of them would like to do more and it’s on the Jewish community to say come speak to our synagogue, come speak to our summer camp. Because it really is another perspective
on the country and you always seem to hear the same stories over and over. They can breathe new life into an ages old discussion.”
Whose responsibility is that? Is it the government’s?
“I think they can. I don’t know too much about how they allocate their funds and resources so you can divy it up. The responsibility can be on players, it can be on teams, it can be on the government. I think part of it is just, this is a bit of a hidden in plain sight phenomenon. I think everyone knows a lot of these stories, I didn’t discover anything new, but the aggregate value of their stories I don’t think has been appreciated yet. Hopefully when we see it all together like we see in the book, government and Jewish organizations will see it and players will get more of those calls.
Do you think there are any other reasons why people say Israel has the best of everything? And why doesn’t that attract more foreign players from countries other than the United States?
“It could be a part of it. The question that I posed and that you referenced was the idea that maybe teams might be reluctant to sign a European player with a checkered history as far as their relationships with Jews. Some saw some merit to it, some don’t. Some thought very simply Israel and America have very close ties so it’s a natural fit. It’s tough to find a definitive answer to it but it’s statistically significant. I did look two years apart, two different countries and 80-something percent of foreign players being African-Americans when you’ve got the whole world to choose from, and again I mentioned it in the book, Italy and Greece were in the high-50s, low-60s. So it’s a 20% difference. I don’t know exactly what the reason is but obviously it’s working for everybody but it was one of the unanswered questions that I couldn’t quite pin down.”
Where do you see yourself going from here? Do you think there will one day be a Alley-Oop to Aliyah volume 2?
“Right now where I’m going from here is trying to spread the word. I really think it’s an amazing phenomenon, it’s a positive phenomenon, it’s this extraordinary cohort of people that again, looking at the aggregate it’s pretty amazing when you collect all the stories. So what I’d like is for as many people as possible to know about it. We’ve chatted outside of this interview that you can quickly dismiss this as a basketball story and I’m not interested but as soon as you hear an anecdote, read a page, hear one of the players’ stories, you realize it’s a human story, it’s an Israel story, and it’s about people bonding with people. It’s pretty extraordinary, so it’s spreading the word as much as I can. As far as a volume 2, you could write this book at any point, you could speak to 40 different players and get a very similar book so I hope the phenomenon will continue, I hope more players will stay and I think that they will. And maybe in volume 2 we’ll be talking about the coaching experience. I’d love to see the Corey Carrs, Willie Sims, Carl Neversons get coaching opportunities and get that aspect of it in volume 2. I think that would be a wonderful thing to add as a chapter 14.”