In a Chicago Tribune interview last October, shortly before pro basketball was shut down by a bruising lockout, players' union chief Billy Hunter waxed sentimental about his lifelong passion for defending the underdog. By way of illustration, he recalled how, as a teen-ager in 1950s-era Cherry Hill, N.J., he used to trade blows with bigots who harassed his best friend for being Jewish. Hunter himself is black.
It was an intriguing reminder of a bygone era of black-Jewish intimacy. But Hunter wasn't really discussing social history. He was talking, in code, about basketball today. It was a message to players and team owners: Don't let this labor dispute turn into an ethnic clash.
There was ample reason to worry. Close to 85 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association are black. Nearly half of the 29 teams' owners are Jewish -- far more than in baseball or football. Most top NBA officials are Jews, beginning with Commissioner David Stern. No other arena in American life, except popular music, brings Jews and blacks together in such an intimate, high-profile engagement.
It's an engagement with deep roots. In its early days, basketball was dominated by Jewish players, nearly as much as black players dominate today. And for the same reason: It was a poor boy's ticket out of the ghetto. An urban game, requiring no grassy fields or expensive equipment, basketball is open to anyone with a ball and a hoop. "The early great players and progenitors of the sport were Jewish," says New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick.
Then, Jews moved out and blacks moved in. Today, the game resembles nothing so much as an old downtown neighborhood that turned from Jewish to black, leaving behind a Jewish economic presence as landlords and shopkeepers.
Not that the players are living in poverty. But the undercurrents of resentment are there. Last fall, they reached a peak. It wouldn't have taken much to ignite an ugly black-Jewish confrontation, given the high stakes and raw feelings of the $2 billion basketball contract dispute -- not to mention the famously foul-mouthed crudeness of some players. A few players and their advocates actually began grumbling about the owners' "plantation mentality."
In the end, no one crossed the line from black-white race-baiting to singling out Jewish owners. Not publicly, anyway. Across the country, Jewish fans, sportswriters and team owners silently braced for anti-Semitism throughout the six-month lockout. It never materialized.
The credit is partly due to Hunter, the union chief. "Billy stood up and said race was not an issue," says Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith.
Hunter took a series of small, symbolic steps to forestall ethnic friction. He named the league's only Jewish player, Orlando Magic center Danny Schayes, son of the legendary player-coach Dolph Schayes, to the negotiating team. Hunter and Schayes both made a point during the talks of peppering their conversation with Yiddish-flavored jokes. Hunter even boned up on the history of black-Jewish ties; aides say a book on the topic has been sitting prominently on his desk for weeks.
"There was some talk on the margins about this being a race thing," says the union's press spokesman, Dan Wasserman. "But the simple fact is that Billy Hunter slam-dunked that notion."
Part of the peacekeeping credit belongs, too, to Commissioner Stern, if only for making the pot so rich. A lawyer by training, Stern took over the NBA in 1984. Since then, he's utterly transformed the game. By marketing it as celebrity entertainment, complete with stars and sex appeal, he's moved it from a distant third place in popularity, after baseball and football, to rough equality. And basketball's revenues have quadrupled.
Most of the players appreciate that, insiders say. "Some complain," says the New York Post's Mushnick. "But who made them millionaires?"
Players aren't the only ones to benefit from Stern's economic revolution. Team franchises, once money losers, have become fantastically lucrative. The profits, in turn, have lured a whole new generation of investors. "He's been the single-most effective executive in the history of the sports business," says Edward Bleier, president of Warner Bros. and close observer of the game.
One result, some say, is a coarser game. Basketball owners, far more than baseball or football owners, are new to the sport, don't know the inside of the locker room, don't understand their teams. That, combined with the increased individualism fostered by Stern's star system, has led to a decline in team morale.
"There's very little sport left in sports," says Mushnick. "It's about money. It's about a popular culture in free fall. The team doesn't count anymore. It's the individual."
Another result is that certain basic questions about Jewish life in America are getting harder to ignore. What role should Jews be playing in public life? What role should wealth play in Jewish life? Most of all, who are the Jewish role models for tomorrow's young Jews?
The challenge was raised publicly last September by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, in a speech in Chicago. He blasted Jewish team owners for buying sports teams "as toys" instead of donating their money to Jewish education.
Characteristically, Schorsch bungled his facts and asked the wrong questions. In fact, Jewish sports executives as a group are unusually devoted to Jewish causes. Most are major UJA donors. David Stern has been honored by both UJA and Israel Bonds and personally sponsored a Soviet refugee family. New Jersey Nets owner Henry Taub is a former national chairman of the United Israel Appeal. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin actually changed his team's name from the Bullets after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.
Still, Schorsch was onto something. The growing emergence of Jews as team owners symbolizes a deeper change in Jewish life. It's an unhealthy change, in the most basic sense.
"Sports was a key medium of Americanization for East European Jews," says University of Minnesota anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell, author of a forthcoming book about gender and assimilation. "It was a way of overcoming traditional anxieties about the Jewish male body, and the notion of the Jewish male as a victim unable to defend himself. The powerful male body became a potent issue of acculturation for American Jewish men."
Today, Prell says, we're moving backward. "What you're looking at today," she says, "is the transformation of sports from something Jews did to something Jews own."
Is that what we want?
J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.