You could assemble quite a JCC team from the Jewish basketball manques of the last generation. Google “Tamir Goodman,” perhaps the most ballyhooed of the erstwhile “Jewish Jordans,” and you get suggested searches for Omri Casspi, Jon Scheyer, Jordan Farmar, and Sam Jacobson. Jews famously excelled in the early years of the NBA but have produced few stars since. Jews are more likely to own NBA teams—or run the league, in the case of commissioner David Stern—than appear on a roster.
It’s with that context established that we introduce you to the next Jewish basketball player likely to be the subject of irrational exuberance: Aaron Liberman, a walk-on for the Northwestern University Wildcats. It’s not that we don’t hope for the 6-10, 220-lb., yarmulke-wearing Liberman to become a star. It’s just that we’ve been down this road many times before, and there can seem something a touch gauche, if not chauvinist, about rooting for a ballplayer just because he’s Jewish. (Exploring the particular experiences of Jewish athletes is a far more fruitful endeavor, and we take this opportunity to alert you to Jewish Jocks, the upcoming anthology co-edited by Scroll editor emeritus Marc Tracy.)
I find a similar discomfort in the use of the sobriquet “Jewish Jordan,” as if being Tamir Goodman, a fine if ultimately underachieving ballplayer, were not enough. It’s dispiriting, this custom of defining success by the impossible standards of others. And take this well-intentioned comment from Robert Icart, who coached Liberman at Valley Torah High School: “If he has a good career there, you could see all the student section wearing yarmulkes to the game.” Icart, who was speaking to Yahoo! Sports, is hoping for his former player’s success, but there’s an unsettling air of tokenism around his remark. I’d rather a yarmulke not be part of a cheering section costume.
All the same, I’ll be watching Liberman’s career with interest and will be glad to see him succeed. You just won’t find me calling him the Jewish Dwight Howard; Aaron Liberman, future star or not, is enough.