Jewish shooting star aims to make his mark in NBA

It’s 10 p.m. Do you know where your star shooter is?

“There’re guys who show up early before practice and stay late, and David did those things,” recalled former USC and current Iowa State assistant basketball coach Damon Archibald. “But I remember being in the office at 10 at night and wanting to get a hold of him. I called him and I didn’t get him. And then I thought, ‘Wait — he might be in the gym.’ And he was.”

In fact, in his undergraduate days at USC, 24-year-old David Bluthenthal put in so much time honing his shot that he even had his own set of keys to the gym.

“Hey, you never know — if it’s 12 at night and you can’t sleep, go shoot some free throws,” said the 6-foot-7, 220-pound native Southern Californian with a laugh. “That way I didn’t have to call anybody to let me in.”

The man USC teammates used to call “Air Bluth” inked a contract with the Sacramento Kings last month. And if, as is widely expected, he cracks the 12-man roster, he’ll be the only Jew in the NBA and first since the Minnesota Timberwolves released Danny Schayes in late 1999.

Bluthenthal’s late mother was Jewish and his father is black — the family name Bluthenthal originated with a slave owner David Bluthenthal believes was German-Jewish.

Donning an NBA uniform is something Bluthenthal has dreamed about ever since he was hoisting jump shots at the hoop in his front yard as a little kid. And he thought about it when he was knocking down all those midnight free throws. And he thought about it when he led the U.S. Maccabi basketball team to Israel in 1997. And he most certainly thought about it when NBA draft day came up in 2002 and his phone didn’t rang.

“I’ll tell you, when I didn’t get drafted, I guess you could say it was an ego disappointment. But I sat back and realized that it was better to not get drafted because I could play for any team anywhere,” he said.

“Signing with Maccabi [Tel Aviv] was such a natural thing; they’d been pursuing me forever.”

While it was yarmulke-wearing, Orthodox guard Tamir Goodman who got the magazine spreads and the (unfortunate) nickname “Jewish Jordan,” coaches on several continents agreed that Bluthenthal was the best young Jewish player in America after his 1997 Maccabi turn.

Bluthenthal’s USC career reinforced what Maccabi Tel Aviv scouts knew all along — he was a master of the basketball skills often neglected by even top American professionals. Bluthenthal is a pure jump shooter with deep range and an uncanny knack for drilling clutch three-pointers and, perhaps even more importantly, free throws.

“He’s as good a shooter as I think there is,” said former USC and current Wyoming assistant Silvey Dominguez.

Still, Bluthenthal’s first year in Israel was somewhat awkward. He was thousands of miles away from home, didn’t speak the language and spent the majority of his time glued to the bench.

“To be honest, I was somewhat expendable. They used me if they needed me, and, if not, I was just another Israeli player.” said Bluthenthal, who became an Israeli citizen when he moved overseas.

Still, it was a learning experience. He picked up the nuances of the European game, and, naturally, put in long hours in the gym with teammates and fellow Americas Anthony Parker and Maceo Baston.

This year started slowly for Bluthenthal, but he came up big late in the season, and so did Maccabi. Bluthenthal was a key factor in the Euroleague Championships, notching 20 points in Maccabi’s 118-74 blowout win over Skipper Bologna in the final.

“It was the best part of my life. I’ve played all over the world, I’ve been to NBA games, and there’s no group of fans like Maccabi fans,” he said.

Bluthenthal’s big finish earned him a spot on the Israeli national team, but it also caught the eyes of several NBA franchises. Leaving Maccabi wasn’t an easy decision, but Bluthenthal couldn’t turn down the opportunity to fulfill his lifelong dream.

He’s also keenly aware that he’s the only Jew on an NBA roster right now.

“I’m proud. This is obviously a huge honor for me,” he said.

And, to make things even sweeter, Bluthenthal won’t need those keys to the Sacramento Kings’ gym.

“They have a fingerprint ID,” he said with palpable enthusiasm. “You can go in 24 hours a day.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.