NBA star with Hebrew roots is not your average Maccabiah Games participant

jerusalem  |  The two Israeli television cameramen awaiting the Canadian basketball team’s arrival at the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games on July 18 didn’t hint at the chaos about to envelop Amar’e Stoudemire.

The 6-foot-11 New York Knicks forward stepped from the charter bus and the cameramen departed, duly satisfied they had captured their shots.

But the party was just beginning. Seemingly every one of the 9,000 athletes waiting to parade through Teddy Stadium for the opening ceremonies saw, touched, pointed or took pictures with Stoudemire, who appeared to revel in the attention and repeatedly rebuffed officials who offered escorts to a less hectic spot.

Israeli President Shimon Peres and NBA star Amar’e Stoudemire at the president’s residence in Jerusalem

Some Brazilian athletes recognized Stoudemire first and asked him to pose for a picture. A step later, several Venezuelans followed suit. Then American rugby players wanted in on the action. And then the Australians, Germans, Brits and Hungarians.

As long as it was a group photo, Stoudemire obliged. For more than three hours the cameras clicked.

Stoudemire, who is participating in the games as an assistant coach for the Canadian basketball squad, has long believed he has Jewish roots — or, as he told this reporter, Hebrew roots.

“I’m not a religious person, I’m more of a spiritual person, so I follow the rules of the Bible that coordinate with and connect with the Hebrew culture,” he said.

“You have to read the book to get an understanding. The Bible is a history book. The ultimate goal is to … start to live the actual Scriptures instead of reading about [them]. It’s the actions that count.”

Stoudemire, who visited Israel shortly after signing with the Knicks three years ago, did not read up on Israel or Judaism in advance of this trip. But he did show off his Jewish symbols: a Star of David tattoo on his left thumb and a diamond YHWH charm (representing the Hebrew letters of God’s unspoken name) on his gold necklace.

He has been influenced on his spiritual path by his parents, whom he says are “both Hebrew.”

Upon arrival, Stoudemire gathered his trainer and security men for a taxi ride to the Old City, where they ducked into King David’s Tomb and viewed the Western Wall.

Stoudemire said he “absolutely” feels a personal connection to Israelis and to Jews, although he’s unsure about the connection’s genealogical basis. In 2010, he indicated that his mother’s side of the family had Jewish roots.

Stoudemire and Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat at construction site of a new arena photos/jta-flash90-yonatan sindel

“Through DNA, you can prove the Hebrew tribe,” he said.

In New York, Stoudemire has held discussions on Judaism with local rabbis, whom he declined to name. He said the talks have been informative.

“I study Torah all the time,” Stoudemire said. “We study the Tanach. Our family celebrates all the High Holy Days. We’re definitely all in, and we’re Jewish. I had a Hebraic wedding in New York, so I’m definitely Jewish.”

But coming to Israel, he continued, is more about working with the Canadian team than working on his own spiritual journey. John Dore, the Canadian head coach, says Stoudemire has been “almost seamless” in transitioning from player to coach.

“When he speaks, they listen,” said Dore, now coaching his fifth Canadian team at the Maccabiah Games. “They’re learning from one of the greats in the game.”

Stoudemire, 30, averaged more than 20 points per game every season between 2003 and 2011, except for the one season he missed due to injury. The Phoenix Suns took him with the No. 9 pick in the 2002 NBA draft, selecting him directly out of high school.

He played his first eight seasons for the Suns, then signed a five-year contract worth $99.7 million with the Knicks before the 2010-11 season. He had a great first season in New York, averaging 25.3 points per game, but has dropped off in the two seasons since then; last year, he played only 29 of the Knicks’ 82 regular-season games (starting none of them) due to a knee injury. His role next season could be as a sixth or seventh man.

In Israel, Stoudemire has been wearing a gold ring that evokes the ancient Temple’s priestly breastplate, its 12 sections studded with gems. His wife, Alexis, bought it for him as a wedding gift, he said.

“One thing this represents is world peace,” Stoudemire said. “That means to have shalom, to have peace among all people. That’s the proper way to live. It keeps you humble. It represents the 12 tribes. We’re all related.”