By Rebecca Weinberg – Special to The Sports Rabbi
Deni Avdija’s entrance to the NBA with the Washington Wizards has brought excitement from fans across the world, but for the Jewish community, it holds a special importance. As a Jewish player from northern Israel, Avdija brings a Jewish visibility to the league that rarely occurred in earlier years. His outgoing personality and fearless attitude further enhance these new opportunities to bring light to Jewish culture and traditions. This visibility is additionally leading to awareness of larger audiences, especially the Israeli fanbase. As an international player, he draws from a unique group of fans who are eager to follow his journey.
While he’s not the first Jewish Israeli player to compete in the NBA, he’s the first to be drafted in the top ten after the Wizards selected him at number nine in the draft. He follows in the footsteps of a powerful but particularly small group of Israeli and Jewish NBA players, most notably Omri Casspi, but none have commanded the same hype that has accompanied Avdija. The Wizards have capitalized on that attention, especially through social media, and are continuously working to provide more welcoming spaces for Israeli and Jewish fans.
Avdija has been just as excited to share his background with the team and league as the fans are to witness it. In a press conference during the NBA Combine, he remarked how grateful he was for the opportunity to represent his community. “Any time you can make history or any kind of good thing to represent the Jewish community and the state of Israel, that’s an honor for me,” says Avdija. Recently, the Wizards have been using their large social media presence to show appreciation for him and his openness to teach about his heritage by posting Jewish-related content and even using Hebrew backgrounds for Avdija’s post game pressers.
The kid impressed in his NBA debut. He can shoot pic.twitter.com/62nMNia8Fa
— Ben Raby (@BenRaby31) December 24, 2020
On the first night of Hanukkah, the Wizards’ official Instagram account posted a video of Deni reciting the Hanukkah blessings and lighting the candles, with the aim of reaching their Jewish audiences as well as delivering educational content to those less familiar with Hanukkah. Prior to Deni’s arrival in the NBA, a general “Happy Hanukkah” post usually was the farthest teams would go to express their acknowledgement of the holiday. Avdija, however, provided fans this year with the experience of lighting the menorah, joining him in prayer, and getting to hear remarks about what the holiday means to him. Through the Wizards’ endeavors to amplify Jewish voices, Avdija and the new fanbase he carries have been met with a sense of belonging. It has been clear that Avdija has felt this support, as he can always be found with a smile on his face at practice.
Deni Avdija is here to wish you a Happy Hanukkah! 🕎 pic.twitter.com/bxKmjpFyvx
— Washington Wizards (@WashWizards) December 10, 2020
In another recent video posted on the Wizards’ social media account, Deni is singing happy birthday in Hebrew to his Latvian teammate Anzejs Pasecniks. The team is gathered behind him, smiling and clapping along as they welcome his traditions into their team environment. For someone just beginning their NBA career, Avdija is remarkably comfortable around, and has easily made friends with, all of his new teammates, and the inclusive atmosphere has provided for a smooth transition to the Wizards from his Maccabi Tel Aviv days.
מישראל ללטביה באהבה דרך וושינגטון. פעם ראשונה שחגגו יום הולדת לאנזייז פאסשניקס בצורה הזו (תודה דני): pic.twitter.com/s8HbfnlveG
— Washington Wizards 🇮🇱 (@washwizardsil) December 21, 2020
In addition to freely expressing his Jewish traditions, he’s also connecting with Hebrew-speaking fans across the globe. Following Avdija’s first few days with the Wizards, an official Wizards Hebrew language account was created on Twitter, providing daily updates and highlights for fans who speak Hebrew. Having grown up in Israel, Deni has amassed a major following of Israeli fans who are excited to follow his career. The account focuses mostly on Avdija, but also posts general team news and videos. By providing this content to fans who don’t speak English, the Wizards are aiming to make their involvement with the team as accessible to them as possible.
The Wizards’ trailblazing efforts to highlight Jewish visibility and welcome the Israeli fanbase to their team is a big step forward, especially as it advances the league’s focus on inclusion. It will be interesting to see the steps other teams take to follow in the Wizards’ footsteps to work towards greater accessibility and representation for players with diverse backgrounds.