In the 65 years since Israel’s independence, no sports team there has been more successful than Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club. Along with 50 Israeli championships and 40 national cups, Maccabi first made international history upon winning its inaugural European Championship back in 1977. It has since gone on to win four more European titles, with the dominance, from 2002 until 2012, of Los Angeles’ own David Blu.
Born David Bluthenthal in July 1980, the 6-foot-7 athlete played basketball for the University of Southern California before joining Maccabi for six nonconsecutive seasons until his summer 2012 departure, which caught fans by surprise. He was adored by Maccabi devotees, professionally celebrated when invited to play for the Israeli national team and became one of Europe’s most sought-after talents.
Following his last season with Maccabi, Blu decided to go back home to Marina del Rey with wife Megan; daughter Bridget, 5; and son Baron, 18 months. (He has an older daughter Hailey, 12, from a previous relationship.) “I learned a lot living alongside Israelis; they are very loyal to one another and made sure I was part of them,” he said in an interview. “But once I came back to America, I felt free. Things are happening for me; I’m making connections, I went back to school, I’m smiling, my family’s happy. I lived in Europe, but this here is my home.”
The son of a Jewish mother, Suzanne, a nurse whom he lost to cancer when he was 14, and an African-American father, Ralph, who converted to Judaism, Blu’s first year off the basketball court saw him digging into his lineage as part of his bachelor’s degree studies in sociology at USC. While his original last name is believed to be derived from a 19th century Jewish-German slave owner on his mother’s side, Blu’s ancestry also includes financier Isaias Wolf Hellman, co-founder of USC, from which Blu, his great-great-great grandson, just graduated.
Fascinated by his study of genealogy, Blu hopes to maintain a close connection to the Jewish community, the same bond that made his father send David, as a high schooler, to Israel to play with the American basketball team at the 15th Maccabiah Games in 1997.
“I studied my Jewish side and my African-American side, all the way from Arkansas to California,” he explained, “and it’s interesting to see how both integrated in American culture. I don’t know many people with a similar black-Jewish background.”
What follows is a recent interview with Blu:
Jewish Journal: Was your departure from Israel planned?
David Blu: During my final season, I played every game as if it were my last. I knew it was the end. I thought of maybe one or two more seasons, but it all changed with the birth of my son in November 2011. I used to take my daughter to the playgrounds in Tel Aviv and she couldn’t communicate with other kids in Hebrew. We figured we would be headed back to the U.S. eventually, so we didn’t enroll her in Hebrew kindergarten. And whenever she stared at me at the playground, it broke my heart.
JJ: What was the thought behind changing your last name?
DB: I grew up playing basketball, mostly with other black guys, and I used to get teased a lot for my name. It’s something that sticks with you for life, though it has nothing to do with my religion. I am a proud Jewish man. But I didn’t want my family to endure all that. I didn’t even want my wife to take my last name at first. So we decide to shorten the name four years ago when we were in New York. I live right around the corner from Hollywood, and one of my dreams is to someday be a sports commentator on ESPN. And let’s face it, David Blu sounds more Hollywood, right?
JJ: How do you see yourself involved in Israel in the future?
DB: One of my good friends is Elliot Steinmetz, who coaches back East at the North Shore Hebrew Academy High School and has been working with the USA Youth Men’s Basketball Team for the Maccabiah. [The 19th games concluded July 30.] He is giving me good advice about expanding my Jewish brand, and I’m very interested in contributing with my professional knowledge and experience to the community.
JJ: How is life away from the limelight in Israel?
DB: Back there, I’m a celebrity. No matter where I went I was instantly recognized, and I loved it. On the other hand, it feels great being surrounded by family and friends; I no longer miss out on those precious moments in life. I miss the day-to-day of playing basketball. There’s nothing like that feeling of getting the ball in at the buzzer. Maybe one day I’ll get to see my son do the same.