“Are you real?” President Shimon Peres asked as he looked American basketball player Amar'e Stoudemire up and down at the president’s residence in Jerusalem last Thursday. “My God!”
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Standing 6’10” (2.08 meters), the larger-than-life star of the New York Knicks has been turning lots of heads on this visit, his second trip to the Holy Land in the last three years. Officially, Stoudemire is here to coach the Canadian men’s basketball team at the Maccabiah Games, the quadrennial sports competition commonly known as the Jewish Olympics that runs through July 30. But his schedule reveals a deeper engagement with Israel, to which he has repeatedly said he feels a strong spiritual connection.
In addition to meeting with Peres, who invited him to join the national team, Stoudemire held a basketball workshop last week for youth and coaches in Tel Aviv; visited schools in Kiryat Malachi and Kiryat Ekron to promote a Hebrew University program that combines sports with science education; and met with representatives of Hapoel Jerusalem, the professional Israeli basketball team of which he is now a part-owner, along with hi-tech entrepreneur Ori Allon and two others.
Stoudemire, 30, said he bought the team last month with an eye toward his post-NBA professional life. “Basketball is a short career,” he said during a press conference in Tel Aviv on Friday. “I feel like I’ve been blessed to play 12 years. After that, what else is next?
“The ultimate goal is to expand the elite game of basketball to a global atmosphere,” he continued.“So when the opportunity knocked on the door, as far as being able to bring talent to Jerusalem, and Jerusalem being such a remarkable city and historic city, it was only right for me to get involved.”
Stoudemire’s path to the Maccabiah began in the spring of 2012, when John Dore, the head coach of the Canadian team and a close friend of Knicks general manager Glen Grunwald, met with the Knicks forward and asked him to join his staff as an assistant coach. On Friday, Dore said that Stoudemire mulled the offer over for a while “and then got really excited about it.”
A first-time coach in international competition, Stoudemire has helped lead Canada to a 1-1 record, with a 113-37 dismantling of Kazakhstan on Sunday. (The team plays France on Tuesday at 3 P.M. at the Malha Arena in Jerusalem.)
Unlike players, coaches need not be Jewish nor hail from the countries they are representing, in the Maccabiah Games. Yet Stoudemire, who was born and raised in Florida, has in fact made statements in the past to the effect that he has Jewish ancestry. During his 2010 visit to Israel, he wore a kippa and told an interviewer for Sport 5 that he observes Shabbat and Jewish holidays.
At the time, however, his agent told the sports website AOL Fanhouse that “it’s a stretch to call him Jewish.” On Twitter, Stoudemire has made statements that are more closely associated with the Hebrew Israelite community –such as that black people are “the people of the Bible” and that Latinos are descendants of the 12 tribes of Israel – than with mainstream Judaism.
Yafah Baht Gavriel, a spokeswoman for the African Hebrew Israelite community in Dimona, said that Stoudemire is related by marriage to members of the community but is not a member himself. Stoudemire declined to comment when asked about the connection by a reporter on Friday.
Fans in Israel said they were not bothered by Stoudemire’s potentially confusing statements about his identity. “From a halachic point of view, I guess his Jewishness is questionable,” said Knicks fan Joshua Halickman, a native of Montreal who lives in Jerusalem and produces a weekly sports podcast called “The Sports Rabbi.” “But if he wants to be part of the Jewish people in a cultural sense, I have no problem with that. I think he’s a great ambassador for Israel.”
Whether or not he is Jewish by blood, Stoudemire’s public embrace of Israel has inflamed a portion of his international fan base. In response to criticism of his participation in the Maccabiah Games from some of his pro-Palestinian followers, Stoudemire tweeted on Friday: “#PalestinianLove. Remind me of us blacks searching for freedom in the 60’s.” He followed that up with another tweet: “I’m not a politician. Just want peace for everyone, don’t wanna get into politics and political discussions. #GlobalPeace”
Tal Brody, who won a gold medal with the U.S. men’s basketball team at the 1965 Maccabiah and later immigrated to Israel and played for Maccabi Tel Aviv, applauded Stoudemire for taking a “foothold” in Israel through his ownership of Hapoel Jerusalem.
“I think it’s going to be a big push for the Israeli basketball league,” Brody said. “The better the competition is within the league, the easier it will be for us in Europe.”