Anytime you get together Tamir Goodman, Athletes For Israel and Project Max you know you’re going to get a slam dunk of a program and that’s what occurred yet again this past week at the Jerusalem Y at Goodman’s Basketball Camp.
A pair of former NBA stars in Mark West and Eddie Johnson joined the camp for a special session with the participants as they shared not only some of their on court skills but also some off of their off court ones as well. Project Max aims to build a movement whose goals is to fight racism, antisemitism and intolerance through sports, leveraging advanced technology and the support of professional athletes.
The Sports Rabbi had the opportunity to speak with both West and Johnson about their illustrious careers, playing with some of the greats of the game and of course the State of Israel.
“I have never been here in my life,” West began. “Obviously I’ve heard a lot about the country but I’ve never been here so I’m interested in getting out and seeing Jerusalem, going to Tel Aviv and visiting different sites. This is the center of the universe for a lot of people, the Holy Land, so it’s going to be very interesting.”
Johnson was also super excited about having the chance to visit the country, “I always had wanted to come here. I was a history major in college so I studied a lot about Israel and now I have the opportunity to put my feet on the ground here. I’m just giddy at what I’m going to be able to see and experience here over the next 10 days so I’m extremely excited.”
West played the majority of his career for the Phoenix Suns where he shared the court with some of the greats of the game including Charles Barkley. Danny Ainge, Tom Chambers and Dan Majerle and also played in the NBA Finals back in 1993 against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls.
“It was great,” West reminisced. “Everything about it was great. As a basketball player you play in the highest league for the highest prize in the NBA finals. There’s nothing better as far as basketball is concerned other than winning the championship. The only thing is we fell short and lost the series 4-2 but otherwise as far as dreams come true playing in the NBA and playing for the greatest prize, arguably against the best players to ever play was a beautiful thing. Also, Charles Barkley was one of the best to ever play so that’s what you dream of doing.”
Interestingly enough, West and Johnson were teammates on some of those Suns teams, “We’ve stayed in touch for quite a few years,” West commented. “Our families are friends and every once in a while we used to vacation together, especially earlier in our careers. His kids are a bit older than mine but we’ve kept in touch over all these years.”
Johnson began his career in Kansas City with the Kings organization back in the 1980’s and moved with them when they headed to Sacramento. From there, the forward played for a number of franchises together with some of the greats and had success at both the team level and individually as well where he captured the Sixth Man Award in 1989 with the Suns.
“I had a long career, played for a lot of teams, a lot of coaches and I loved everywhere, everywhere I was I had success individually and as a team. My goal was to make the NBA and I didn’t care who I played for, the goal was to make it, the goal was to stay in it as long as I could and I think I did both. I made it and I stayed until I was 40 years old which is pretty old for a basketball player.”
“It’s always a goal to have a good individual accomplishment so when I won 6th Man Award the only reason that it made me feel good was how I won it. First, as a team we won 55 games that season so many times when you get an award you want to have success winning and then second, I won the award for being highly efficient. I averaged 22 pts in 28 minutes, I shot over 40% for 3and I shot almost 50% from the field so to me it was what I did efficiently to get that award. That’s why I view it as a high accomplishment.”
Obviously, the game has changed over the years and it has evolved. West sees how the game is played differently now than it was back when he was on the floor in NBA arenas across the country, “I think it’s always about evolution of the game. I believe that my predecessors look at the way I played the game and say it’s different than what they played. To think about how basketball changed that now you can learn fundamentals online, watch videos that show one how to shoot and how to dribble. Stars like Steph Curry can teach you on Instagram doing shooting or ball handling techniques, maybe not in person but it’s accessible for you to learn those things online from prominent people who are teaching those kind of skills. You got guys my size who are basically rebounders and defenders, you got guys 6’10’’ or 6’11’’ who can bring it up the court, pass the ball and shoot threes and it’s more diverse as far as international players who have come in and dominated the game. The last 2 or 3 MVPs have been from overseas.”
Johnson also chimed in on the game and how it is played today, “It’s different. The game is played differently now and looked at differently but it’s just the way it evolves. I actually like the method of the way we played back in the 80s and 90s but the players today are extremely athletic, have a ton of energy, can shoot the ball and so their way of playing is their way. I don’t really have any thoughts about it, I just know it’s basketball and if you play great basketball it’s going to be beautiful to watch.”
It was rare back during the 1980’s and 90’s for a solid NBA veteran to head overseas to play, but that’s exactly what Johnson did when he decided to head to Greece and ply his trade for Olympiacos back during the 1994-95 season.
“Playing in Greece was probably the best year of my life playing basketball. I went over there when I was 34 years old, took a break from the NBA and played for Olympiacos. Having the opportunity to play in Athens was tremendous and I was treated extremely well. Even to this day I still am as half of my Twitter followers are from Greece so I think it says a lot to me about what I did there as a player for them to still care and follow me. We won the Greek championship but came up short in the European finals to Real Madrid as Arvydas Sabonis kicked our butts.”
Both players enjoy giving back today as they work with the younger generation in trying to give them tools to help them succeed. West really sees the impact that he is making and what type of game changer that is, “I think it’s very important. I look back at people who tried to teach me the game and it’s one of those legacy things you try to hand it off to the next generation and keep creating the love of the game. Especially when you’re in a camp like this where you have kids here that may not be the most skilled now but when you tell them your story they understand there was a time that I was like you. I wasn’t as skilled, I wasn’t as fast, I wasn’t as athletic, I wasn’t the best player but it’s about working on it, it’s about loving the game and about working on your craft.”
Johnson agreed wholeheartedly, “You always have to give love back to the game. People helped me along the way to get me where I got to, so what you have to do is give it back. I love teaching the game, I love informing and I love watching the game.”