Why it’s no surprise the LA Clippers have a Jewish owner

A long, long time ago — pre-Internet for me — I wrote an “On Religion” column about Rabbi Robert Alper, who was billing himself in the early 1990s as the nation’s only rabbi who was “doing stand-up comedy — intentionally.”

You can’t talk to a funny rabbi without digging into a question that, for some people, remains somewhat touchy: Why do Jews dominate the landscape of American humor? Some of the possible answers to that question are, in fact, fine examples of the kinds of jokes that Jews can tell about each other, while those same jokes would be offensive and out of bounds if told by the goyim.

I have thought of that complicated equation several times during recent weeks while — as a hoops fan — watching the tidal wave of mainstream media coverage of the complicated personal and professional affairs of Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. Several GetReligion readers have sent me notes asking, either directly or indirectly, when this blog was going to ask why more journalists were not exploring the fact that Sterling is, to one degree or another, Jewish.

This raises another question: To what degree is Sterling a secular, cultural, Jew as opposed to being a person who is actively practicing some form of the Jewish faith? Ask that question and others come tumbling along in its wake: Does it matter whether or not he is Jew (secular or religious)? Why is that relevant to his life as a businessman? Why connect that question with his muddy past on matters of business, sports and race?

I would imagine that these were the questions being debated, by Jews and non-Jews, in many major American newsrooms. However, I didn’t see these questions make it into print in the mainstream press. Let me state right up front: I have no idea how to answer any of those questions because I know little or nothing about Sterling’s life and work. Period. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.

However, I am glad that the team at The Jewish Daily Forward decided to tackle (mixed metaphor alert) this subject in a very constructive and newsy manner. It sort of makes you wonder why we didn’t see this angle elsewhere. If, say, The Los Angeles Times team DID write this angle and I missed it, please let me know.

Here’s the top of that story which is provocative, to say the least:

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.

OK, you know that a big question is coming. Right?

As it turns out there is a totally logical answer.

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.”

Believe it or not, the Jewish angle of the controversy was even more complicated behind the scene. Let’s just keep reading:

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.

To make a long story short, there was a time when basketball was a heavily Jewish game on the court as well as off. Thus, the fact that today there are so many Jewish owners (but almost no Jewish players), while there are so many African-American players (but few in management offices) is a subject that causes great “anxiety” — that’s the word used in the article — among Jews who care about issues of sports and justice.

What this article does not do is explore the degree to which the practice of the Jewish faith is related to any of this. The Forward also, to be blunt, has next to nothing to say about Sterling.

But this is fascinating stuff, no matter what angle you take. This story is certainly a solid first step into exploring this fascinating angle of the Sterling debacle. I mean, check this out:

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.

You get the picture? By all means, read it all.

IMAGE: A kippah complete with official LA Clippers logo.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • John Leavy

    Conservative black economist Thomas Sowell likes to say, “You know you’re really old if you can remember when all the best basketball players were Jewish.”

  • Kevin Spencer

    Insightful story. It’s really a good piece that avoids talking about the faith but how Jewish culture intertwined. I think the lack of discussion about Sterling was deliberate. They would’ve only added opinion and removed the story’s balance.


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