April 23, 2009
Jordan Farmar and the Jewish (Hoops) Future
The NBA's lone MOT is down but not out of Laker's postseason.
It’s the second night of Passover, and Jordan Farmar is warming up under the bright lights of Staples Center. His teammates have already slipped into the locker room to decompress before taking the court against the Denver Nuggets. Farmar is still taking shot after shot.
Peeling off imaginary screens, pulling up as he’s running down the court, stepping to the free-throw line. Swish. Swish. Swish.
Alone on the court before the sell-out crowd arrives for one of the last home games of the regular season, Farmar looks as dominant as he did when he led Woodland Hills’ Taft High School to the city title, as flawless as he did in an NCAA run that took UCLA to the championship game. It’s difficult to remember that in his third year playing pro, all with the Los Angeles Lakers, Farmar hasn’t been so splendid: surgery, limited playing time, a diminished role.
Farmar finished the season poorly, and in Sunday’s playoff opener against the Utah Jazz he played just under four minutes, registering zero points and one assist. Lakers fans have started to trash the once-popular back-up point guard who last year showed so much promise.
But Farmar is only 22 and has “nothing but time.” He knows he’ll get his chance and that he cares too much to let it pass by.
And despite the struggles, Farmar already is a well-known name among basketball followers. His “brand,” as he calls it, has been bolstered by playing for two of the most storied teams in college and professional basketball history and by an oddity that would have been unfathomable 50 years ago: Jordan Farmar is the only dual Member of the Tribe and the National Basketball Association.
Indeed, a sport once dominated by Jews now counts only one MOT at the highest level. And Farmar, who doesn’t celebrate Jewish holidays and considers himself spiritual but not religious, is no Sandy Koufax. At the same time, though, Farmar doesn’t shy away from his Jewish heritage, from the mixed racial and ethnic identity to which it contributes or from the pride that many Jews take in having their own hoop hero.
“People see me as somebody they can relate to,” said Farmar, whose mother is Jewish and father, who is black, is Christian. “It’s not something I even think about. It’s more them relating to me; just me representing them and their people and what they believe and stand for. I don’t make a big deal about it. I don’t deny it or don’t stress it. I just live my life and be who I am.”
Jordan Robert Farmar was born Nov. 30, 1986, at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center to Damon and Melinda Farmar. He didn’t come out of the womb clutching a basketball, but he might as well have. His father was a minor league baseball player and his godfather is former major league all-star center fielder Eric Davis. Farmar quickly learned to love sports. He started playing basketball at age 4 and never wanted to do anything else.
Like many Jewish identities, Farmar’s is complicated. His parents — black and white, Christian and Jew — divorced when Farmar was 3, and he went to live with his mom, who soon met a Jew far more observant than she had been.
Yehuda Kolani had been in Los Angeles on vacation. He told Farmar’s mother not to fall in love, and that he wasn’t going to go native. After he returned to Tel Aviv, Melinda followed and brought him back to Los Angeles. They soon married, adding another tint to Jordan Farmar’s multicultural experience.
“I was born in a Christian family,” Farmar said recently. “And then my mom and dad got divorced and she married an Israeli. He was Orthodox when he was in Israel. He came over here and really reformed a lot. He wanted to have a family and treated me like his son. Everything after that was being raised in a Jewish household. Doing Shabbat dinner, celebrating the holidays and all that.”
Farmar is seated on the couch of his Redondo Beach home. It was Saturday evening and Farmar spoke as he watched North Carolina thump Villanova in the NCAA semi-final game. Over the next hour, he talked about improving his play, building his brand and whether it was more painful to miss out on an NCAA title in 2006 or NBA championship ring last year.
“College,” he said. “I was playing a lot and felt like what I did every night would make or break what happened with our team.”
He shared vaguely the details of his Jewish upbringing, largely because his experiences were limited. Farmar attended Hebrew school at Temple Judea in Tarzana and became a bar mitzvah. From his days playing at the YMCA through high school, Farmar would invite his teammates over for Shabbat dinner. He would bless the wine; his younger half sister, Shoshana, would take care of the bread.
“And that is about it,” Melinda Kolani said in a later interview. “We have friends from all nationalities and all races and all religions, so [being Jewish] is not the major focus.” But, she added: “I’m proud of being Jewish, and I want my kids to know what it is to be Jewish and to have their heritage.”
Perhaps the most apparent legacies of Farmar’s upbringing are his deep commitment to family — he has, after all, never lived outside Los Angeles County — and his appreciation for the value of money, which contributes to his entrepreneurial spirit.
Farmar grew up in a 1,500-square-foot house in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. The Van Nuys neighborhood of his childhood is pleasant, tree-lined and clearly middle class. It’s a lot further removed from his mother’s upbringing in Bel Air than the 10 or so miles that separate the two. But it was home, and it was a good home.
“We didn’t have a lot,” Melinda Kolani said. “We didn’t have abundance. But we were happy.”
Making $1.08 million this year and set to earn $1.9 million next year, Farmar is still living relatively modestly. His Redondo Beach bachelor pad, about two miles from the Pacific and three blocks from Chabad of the Beach Cities, is spacious and luxurious but far from extravagant. He drives a Mercedes and a Cadillac Escalade hybrid, and also bought Benzes for his longtime girlfriend and his mother, but has avoided the trappings that ensnare so many professional athletes. (Sports Illustrated reported last month that within five years of retirement, 78 percent of professional football players and 60 percent of basketball players are broke.)
“I make a lot of money, but if I had to stop today, I would have to work just like everybody else,” he said. “You never know what is going to happen with your career. I could get hurt tomorrow and never be able to play again.”
That maturity — the awareness that God-given gifts and talents are blessings that can be God-taken without warning — has been present in Farmar for years.
“He had this combination of high IQ, period — not just basketball — and was conscientious and a ridiculous worker and just motivated,” said Derrick Taylor, the varsity basketball coach at Taft High School. “He had the whole package.”
While starring at Taft — Farmar averaged 27.5 points with 6.5 assists per game his senior year and led the school to its first Los Angeles City title — he was already being recognized as a Jewish player. Often, this suckered opponents into underestimating him.
“I’ve seen many games, just a countless amount of times, when guys would be like, ‘What’s you got white boy?’” Taylor said. “Oh boy, that would light a fire under him and he would destroy them. He could just bring it.”
By the time Farmar arrived at UCLA in the fall of 2004, the Jewish community had discovered a star they could call their own.
“Everybody knows Jews can’t play basketball.” Or so Eric Cartman, the infamous anti-Semite on Comedy Central’s “South Park,” opined when his classmate Kyle, the fourth grade’s lone Jew, tried out for the Colorado state basketball team.
While humorous and more than a bit bigoted, this statement seems painfully true today. In 2009, notable American Jewish basketball players are the exception. But a century ago they ruled.
The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame includes a handful of Jews. Arnold Jacob “Red” Auerbach, the legendary Celtics coach who won nine NBA titles in 11 years and helped integrate the game; Nat Holman, a visionary playmaker who was widely considered the greatest player of the 1920s; and Barney Sedran, who at 5-foot-4 is the shortest member of the hall. Moses Malone, though a Hall of Famer, was not among the renowned Members of the Tribe.
“Consider this,” said Dolph Schayes, another Hall of Famer who starred at New York University in the mid-1940s, “our greatest rival was St. John’s, which was a Catholic institution, and two of their best players were Hy Gotkin and Harry Boykoff. Every college in New York wanted Jewish players. Jews dominated the sport.”
Back then basketball was, in many ways, a different sport. “Today if the fans saw motion pictures of our play, they would laugh probably because the game was played below the basket, not above it,” said Schayes, who went on to be a 12-time NBA All-Star for the Syracuse Nationals and Philadelphia 76ers and the NBA’s 1966 coach of the year.
Speed and intelligence and precision took precedence over strength and size and athleticism. Not surprisingly, some found cause to denigrate Jewish basketball success.
“The reason, I suspect, that basketball appeals to the Hebrew with his Oriental background,” the sports editor of the New York Daily News, Paul Gallico, wrote in the 1930s, “is that the game places a premium on an alert, scheming mind, flashy trickiness, artful dodging and general smart-aleckness.”
In fact, Jewish excellence on the hardwood had more to do with sociology than biology. Like boxing, which Jews also excelled at, basketball was a favored sport of the inner city, and in the first half of the 20th century, few areas were more urban than New York’s Lower East Side, where Jews were so poor they often rolled up newspaper for their ball and used a fire escape ladder as their basket. The neighborhood was a factory for basketball talent.
Indeed, of the 110 inductees to the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Commack, N.Y., about one-third were basketball players, coaches or commentators.
“This is heritage in a way you don’t think about it,” said Alan Freedman, who, as the hall’s director, travels the country and talks to children about the Jewish sports stars of the last 100 years. “If someone had done this for me, I probably would have gone to Hebrew school and not cut so much.”
Implicit in Freedman’s quip is what many at the time saw as an irreconcilable tension: sports or scholarship. Poor Jewish immigrants wanted their children to grow up to be doctors and lawyers; that left no time for mindless sports.
But Jews would find that they could excel both in class and on the court. And while basketball was in constant conflict with Jewish identity — “There is nothing more American than sports,” said Jeffrey Gurock, author of “Judaism’s Encounter With American Sports” — it also helped strengthen Jewish communities.
“Basketball played such a huge part in the Jewish community and was almost a centerpiece of social life,” said David Vyorst, executive producer of “The First Basket,” a 2008 documentary that explores basketball’s Jewish roots. “In fact, that’s how I ended up joining my JCC. I was playing in a basketball league there and I ended up taking a Torah class. It still works that way today.”
It’s just that Jews now live more comfortably and much more commonly in the suburbs. They still play basketball, but no longer develop their talent in the Petri dish of the inner city. And they can afford to, and are allowed to, play more bourgeois sports.
“The era of Jews being predominant in basketball is a bygone era,” said Gurock, who is also a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University. “It isn’t only a function of being Jewish. It is a function of being middle-class Americans and having other interests that attract them. They’ve outgrown it socially and economically.”
Basketball, too, has changed.
In 1946, when the league that would become the NBA held its first game, four of the New York Knicks’ five starters were Jewish. One of them, Ossie Schectman, scored the league’s first points. But by the time Dolph Schayes’ son, Danny, was drafted in 1981, only two Jewish players, Ernie Grunfeld and Joel Kramer, remained in the NBA.
“Basketball has always been colorblind, religion blind. It’s one of the most neutral experiences: you can play or you can’t,” Danny Schayes said. “Basketball is basketball. Being there to be part of the Jewish community was just the bonus part.”
Although he didn’t see himself as a Jewish symbol, Schayes was embraced by some fans simply because he was Jewish. A journeyman center who played for eight teams in 18 years, including the Lakers, he remembers being cheered on several times in New York and Los Angeles by young Jewish fans waving yarmulkes.
He retired in 1999, and until Farmar was taken by the Lakers with the 26th pick of the 2006 draft, the NBA was Jew free.
The small Jewish athlete corps has given way to an at-times searing spotlight for those fortunate enough to have made it. Top Jewish sports stars, past and present, tend to be household names: Mark Spitz and Dara Torres in swimming; Hank Greenberg, Sandy Koufax, Shawn Green, Kevin Youkilis and Ryan Braun in baseball; Benny Friedman in football; Barney “Pride of the Ghetto” Ross and Benny “Ghetto Wizard” Leonard in boxing; Schayes, Sedran, Holman and Auerbach in basketball.
Maybe someday Farmar, too.
The added attention often poses unique challenges. Athletes appreciate the built-in stable of supporters, but there is an expectation that comes with it.
Braun, who is known as the Hebrew Hammer and in two years playing left field for the Milwaukee Brewers has been National League Rookie of the Year and an All-Star, has been willing to carry the flag. But he didn’t ask to be a spokesman. Never was this more apparent than during last summer’s All-Star weekend.
During a press conference, Braun was asked whether he thought an off-the-cuff comment that Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson had made over the weekend was anti-Semitic. Too much was being made of too little, and, as the JTA staff quipped on its blog, “Poor Ryan Braun is expected to play Abe Foxman instead of left field.”
Braun, who grew up in the San Fernando Valley and attended Granada Hills High School, tried his best to neither offend baseball’s Mr. October nor anyone at the Anti-Defamation League.
“Obviously, it would be disappointing,” Braun said, “but until I’ve actually had a chance to see the comment I couldn’t really respond to it.”
Mike Bauman, a columnist for MLB.com, remarked at the time, “A player who wasn’t Jewish would never get this kind of question. If some prominent person made, for instance, an anti-Protestant remark, the Presbyterian and Lutheran players would not be quizzed about it. But Braun gets the difference.”
Braun realizes that he’s not just another ballplayer. He’s a Jewish ballplayer. Even though hitting home runs and knocking in runs and securing wins are the most important part of his job, he can’t avoid being what others need him to be.
“I think that it’s something that comes with the territory,” Braun added. “There aren’t too many Jewish athletes at the highest level. It’s something that I certainly embrace. But there are times when people expect me to be aware of issues, like that specific example.
“I didn’t have any idea what he was talking about.”
In this realm, Farmar and Braun have a lot in common. When asked what he thought about President Obama’s so-called Jewish problem during his campaign last year, Farmar, who introduced Obama at a Newport Beach fundraiser, said he hadn’t heard anything about it. Indeed, today’s top Jewish athletes, whether deeply committed or only distantly observant, prove just how remarkable Koufax, possibly the greatest Jewish athlete since King David, was when he refused to pitch Game One of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur.
“I wish people wouldn’t say — and I’ve heard this from others — don’t think of me as a Jewish ballplayer or African American or whatever. But that is the way we look at it,” said Freedman, the Jewish hall of fame director. “We all have that feeling of pride when we hear Adam Sandler’s ‘Chanukah Song.’ We are looking at them and put this pressure on them. I look at Ryan Braun and say that Ryan Braun is a great left fielder and a great home-run hitter and he’s Jewish.”
Farmar has picked the spots to blend his identities as athlete and Jew. Last September, he joined the star-studded Chabad Telethon and shot free-throws as a fundraiser.
“Jordan is a real mensch,” said Rabbi Chaim Cunin, executive producer of the telethon and CEO of Chabad of California. “He raised $66,600 in 90 seconds. How many people can say that? He made 37 free throws in 90 seconds. That is a lot of mitzvahs, as we say.”
Before that, in August, Farmar had made his third visit to the Jewish state. But this trip to Israel wasn’t to travel with family. Instead he spent a week leading a basketball camp for Israeli and Palestinian children, getting them to play on the same team and to, at least for a few moments, leave all their differences aside.
“I wasn’t trying to convert anyone or change anyone’s beliefs. I was just trying to open their eyes to just being kids rather than thinking about religion or war or anything like that,” Farmar said.
“For me it doesn’t make any difference one way or another who is in control of that area or whose region it really is or belongs to,” he added. “Like I said, I don’t practice religion like that, so it doesn’t matter to me. But to see people affected by it, it’s unfortunate. Being a kid from a multicultural background, I know that different cultures and different races can coexist and make things happen and work.
“It’s just that their beliefs are completely opposite, and Middle Eastern people are very stubborn. They’ll do anything for their beliefs. They’ll die for it,” he said. “So I don’t know if it will ever end.”
In addition to those endeavors, last summer Farmar started Hoop Farm, a basketball camp he leads at UCLA that also encourages kids to be eco-friendly, and this summer he is hosting the first annual Jordan Farmar Celebrity Golf Classic at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. The proceeds from the golf tournament will benefit the Jordan Farmar Foundation, which is run by his mother and primarily helps at-risk youths and children undergoing cancer treatment at Mattel Children’s Hospital UCLA.
Successful as these efforts are, they won’t change the fact that what’s most important when Farmar steps on the court is how he performs.
“The bottom line is he will be judged for the merit of his play,” Danny Schayes said. “One thing you learn in sports is there is no residual benefit outside of your play. It’s not something where you get additional kudos because you have a foundation or you are the only Jewish player — you can play or you can’t.”
And in that arena Farmar has been hindered this year by the first serious injury of his career, a tear of the lateral meniscus in his left knee that required surgery and sidelined him for a month. He’s struggled since returning, putting up weaker numbers (6.4 points per game) and getting less playing time (18.3 minutes per game) than he did last year. He hit his roughest skid in the last week of the regular season and fans have begun piling on, writing enough disparaging questions to the Los Angeles Times last week to fill out a “Bash Jordan Farmar Q&A.”
“Is it me or is Phil Jackson tightening his reins on Jordan Farmar’s sloppy play?” one fan asked. “His playing this year has been pretty bad, and I could not consider him to be the Lakers’ future starting point guard.”
“No, Roger, it’s not just you. It’s Phil also,” the Times sportswriter responded. “Take the last five regular-season games as an example. Jackson has used Farmar less, playing him 15 minutes, 14, five (all in the first half against Portland), 13 and 17. And Farmar hasn’t been productive. He has scored 12 total points during that five-game span. He has made only 17.3% of his shots, 22.2% of his three-pointers, over that time.”
Farmar is clearly frustrated. “He expected more of himself and a bigger year this year,” Taylor, his high school coach, said. “He thought he was turning the corner.”
But as the Lakers continue their playoff series tonight, April 23, against the Utah Jazz, Farmar is looking to reclaim his spot as their point guard of the future and to show that he can star alongside the best players in the world.
“It’s been up and down trying to stay levelheaded and consistent and continue to improve and help this team however I can. I’m still only 22, but this is my third year and I wanted to be farther along. Starting or close to it, definitely playing a lot of minutes,” Farmar said. “I have no concerns it’s going to work out for me. I care too much and I work too hard. Hopefully, we’ll be able to come home with a championship this year.”
Lakers fans and more than a few Jews are pulling for him.