Last month, on the first night of Hanukkah, the Detroit Pistons’ scoreboard operator gave the National Basketball Association (NBA) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) a lesson. Kyrie Irving, the Brooklyn Nets’ point guard, was having a characteristically brilliant offensive night—devastating crossover dribbles, an incredible double-clutch left-handed shot from the paint, and killer pull-up 3’s—when he was fouled in the fourth quarter. Irving came to the line to shoot two and the hometown crowd booed, trying to rattle him. As he prepared to take his first shot, the big screens at Little Caesars Arena flashed images of a menorah and then a globe. Kyrie made the shots and the Pistons ultimately lost the game—but they won the day. Kyrie is a genius on the basketball court, and even more fun to watch than his all-time great teammate Kevin Durant, but he’s an apparent flat-earther and antisemite off of it. So spin the globe and happy Hanukkah, Mr. Irving!
Eight weeks earlier, on October 27th, Irving had tweeted a link to the Amazon page for a crackpot movie called Hebrews to Negroes: Wake up Black America! The movie draws on the usual suspects of Jew-hatred (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, Henry Ford’s The International Jew, Rothschildish tales, Holocaust denial) along with a radical version of Black Hebrew Israelite theology to claim that present-day Jews are not descendants of the ancient Israelites. They (we) usurped that position from the original Children of Israel, who were black, and then conspired to enslave and oppress them. They (we) also manipulate the world economy, control the media, and literally worship Satan. (But still make a nice pastrami on rye.)
Irving’s tweet horrified Nets owner, Joseph Tsai, whose basketball team plays in Brooklyn after all (home to half-a-million Jews and more antisemitic assaults than anywhere else in the country), not to speak of the image-conscious NBA and its commissioner, Adam Silver (who is Jewish). They had all only recently, and just barely, recovered from Mr. Irving’s previous favorite conspiracy theory, which was that COVID vaccines are a Satanic plot against black people somehow involving a supercomputer. His consequent refusal to get vaccinated kept him off the court for most of last season, killed the Nets’ chances to get to the finals, and, of course, endangered anyone who took his medical advice.
The NBA’s damage containment plan was to sit Irving down with Jonathan Greenblatt and the nice folks at the ADL, who would give him a history lesson, explain that Jews and blacks were both victims of white supremacists, and accept a $500,000 check from him to help them fight antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. Then Irving would give a press conference recanting his endorsement of the movie.
Why anyone thought that a serial conspiracy theorist would be convinced that he was wrong that Jews rule the world once two CEOs named Silver and Greenblatt talked to him and then relieved him of half-a-million dollars is anybody’s guess. Actually, it eventually sort of worked, but not before Irving gave two disastrous press conferences in one of which he seemed to endorse the central contention of Hebrews to Negroes, saying “I cannot be antisemitic if I know where I come from.” (His intransigence was applauded by rapper Kanye West who was himself in the midst of a very public antisemitic breakdown, which would culminate in bringing a Nazi as his plus-one to dinner with former President Trump at Mar-a-Lago.)
Eventually, Irving more or less paid the proper obeisances, and everyone (Silver, Tsai, his old Cleveland teammate LeBron James) agreed that he was not an antisemite after all, although no one said exactly why they were so sure of that. Instead of suspending Irving for a tweet and then trying to rehabilitate him with a PR show trial, the Nets, the NBA, and the ADL should have just responded with the ruthless honesty and good humor of the Detroit Pistons’ scoreboard guy.
I’ve actually been a fan of Irving’s ever since he came to the Cleveland Cavaliers as a rookie in 2011, which is why last year, before the tweet, I was so excited to have breakfast with him, more or less. The Nets were in Cleveland and staying at the hotel where my daughter had just been married. The night before, the Nets’ assistant coach Amar’e Stoudemire had run into my niece’s husband in the elevator and asked where he could find a good minyan. Stoudemire, a former NBA star with family roots in the Black Hebrew movement, had ended his career with Maccabi Tel Aviv and eventually converted to Judaism. This morning, Kyrie was at the next table, chatting intently with a friend, while Stoudemire was presumably off davening.
Stoudemire is not the only person to make the transition from Black Hebrew to traditional rabbinic Jew. There are different streams of the movement and Irving seems to have stepped into the most radical, rivalrous, anti-Jewish version. The conspiracy theory that Irving bought into is really, I think, a modern version of ancient Gnosticism. The Jews are impostors, worshippers of an evil demigod who temporarily rules this world but not the universe as a whole. These Jews are perpetrators of a massive conspiracy, whereas the true people of god are those with secret knowledge (gnosis) of the real world behind the veil of lies, and of the hidden god above it. Once one thinks about it, perhaps most conspiracy theories share a gnostic deep structure, from flat-earth speculation (which requires an evil NASA, etc.) to QAnon.
In one of his disastrous press conferences, Irving spoke sincerely of his sense, as the descendant of slaves and Native Americans, of being the victim of a historical conspiracy despite his worldly success. It reminded me a little of James Baldwin’s conclusion after visiting Elijah Muhammad in Chicago sixty years ago. Given the realities of black life at the time, Baldwin wasn’t surprised at the success of Muhammad’s bizarre conspiracy theory (another gnostic myth), but he also wasn’t giving up his critical faculties to be comforted by its certainties.
In the end, the trolling from the Pistons’ scoreboard operator seems to me more respectful of Kyrie Irving than the NBA and ADL’s vague hand-wringing and attempts at corporate damage control. It was an invitation for Kyrie to step out of himself, away from these ridiculous beliefs, look at the world as it is, perhaps even laugh—and maybe, just maybe, miss the free throw.
When I was a kid, I read a Sports Illustrated profile of the great San Antonio Spurs scorer, George Gervin, whose nickname was “The Iceman” because of his clutch shooting. After a game in which he had made a seemingly impossible shot from the corner, a reporter asked him why he had taken it. “The world is round,” Gervin said, which remains true.
“Of course, I had myself gone to Hebrew school—that’s what we always called it though very little Hebrew was ever learned—through most of elementary school. I’d walk the five blocks down Bancroft . . .”
The 1951 basketball game that pitted CCNY, which fielded blacks and Jews, against the all-white University of Kentucky seemed less a meeting of schools than a clash of civilizations: old versus new, South versus North, prejudice versus tolerance.
From tweeting trolls to digital incitement, a contemporary history.
I would never have said this ten years ago, or even five years ago, but there apparently comes a time in the lives of those who write about Jewish identity when they have to decide whether to write about . . . it.