It will be hard to find Jews on the court in the National Basketball Association playoffs. But toss a basketball into an NBA owners’ meeting, and you’ll probably hit one.
There are only three Jewish players in the NBA, and no Jewish head coaches. Yet nearly half the principal owners of NBA teams are Jewish, as are the league’s current commissioner and its immediate past commissioner.
No other major pro league in the United States has such a high proportion of Jewish owners. The NFL comes closest: Roughly a third of that league’s owners are Jewish. Just a handful of pro baseball and hockey owners are Jews.
So why do Jews own so many NBA teams? The answer has to do with the prehistory of pro basketball, the sport’s urban roots and the economics of the modern NBA. Also, Jews are huge basketball fans.
“Jews love basketball,” said Nathaniel Friedman, who writes widely about basketball under the pen name Bethlehem Shoals. “If you asked a Jewish multimillionaire what they want, they’d probably say they want to buy the Knicks, in their dreams.”
American Jews’ overwhelming dominance of the business side of pro ball slipped awkwardly into the spotlight April 29, when NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced harsh sanctions against Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, at a press conference in New York. Silver levied fines and a lifetime ban against Sterling, who had been caught on tape expressing racist attitudes toward black people. During the question-and-answer session, a sportswriter named Howard Megdal (who once wrote a book called “The Baseball Talmud”) asked whether the fact that both Silver and Sterling were Jewish had affected Silver’s response to Sterling’s racist tirade.
“I think my response was as a human being,” Silver said.
The interaction highlighted not only the predominance of Jewish ownership in the NBA, but also the near-lack of African-American owners (Michael Jordan famously owns the Charlotte Bobcats). “People have difficulty talking about [the] conflicts, tensions, the differential privileges,” said David Leonard, an associate professor at Washington State University, Pullman and the author of the 2012 book “After Artest: The NBA and the Assault on Blackness.” “I think moments like this become a moment of anxiety for many in the Jewish community.”
The 14 Jewish principal owners of NBA teams are a diverse group. Some have been in the league for decades, others for just a few years. Herbert Simon has co-owned the Indiana Pacers since 1983. Joe Lacob and his partners bought the Golden State Warriors in 2010. Perennially strong teams, like Micky Arison’s Miami Heat, are owned by Jews, as are longtime losers like the Milwaukee Bucks, which Jewish owner Herbert Kohl is preparing to sell to a group co-led by Jewish hedge fund billionaire Marc Lasry.
Also Jews: former NBA commissioner David Stern, current commissioner Silver, legendary basketball broadcaster Marv Albert and Arn Tellem, the league’s leading agent, who represents 44 NBA players with combined salaries of $301 million.
Back at the beginning of the professional game, the league also had prominent Jewish players and coaches. Four of the five starters on the New York Knicks were Jewish in 1946, the first season for both the team and the NBA. “For much of the first half of the 20th century, Jews were very involved in basketball as players,” Leonard said. “Especially among second-generation Jewish immigrants, this became a means of asserting one’s American identity, one’s physical prowess.”