Repentance, professional-basketball style

Some rabbis say it’s high time to forgive NBAer Meyers Leonard for an antisemitic slur.

Meyers Leonard. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Meyers Leonard. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Former Miami Heat center Meyers Leonard uttered an antisemitic slur (rhymes with like) on March 8, 2021, while playing the video game Call of Duty. At the time, some were skeptical of his claim to have been unaware the term was anti-Jewish.

What ought a pro athlete do after committing such a flagrant foul and what’s the best way to drive through the lane to teshuvah (repentance)?

For its part, the National Basketball Association suspended Leonard for a week and fined him $50,000. (He reportedly made more than $9 million that year.) Miami traded him to Oklahoma City, which released him. He is now poised for a possible return.

Has he done his time and learned from his mistakes? Some rabbis who have spoken with him at some length believe he has and note Leonard has visited with quite a few Jewish officials to learn more about antisemitism.

Erez Sherman, the rabbi of Sinai Temple (Conservative) in Los Angeles, who hosted Leonard on his podcast “Rabbi on the Sidelines” this week, told JNS that teshuvah is at the heart of people’s identities. He quoted the 12th century physician and thinker Maimonides, who taught that Jewish repentance has three components: “regret, confession and leaving the action to not do it again.”

“Meyers has done all of this and gone even further to now engage with the Jewish community in the deepest way,” Sherman said. He told JNS that his conversations with the athlete have convinced him the latter is earnest, and his heart is in the right place.

“He has done all of this work on his own, using the (basketball) court to bring people together and not divide,” Sherman said. He believes Leonard will continue to be an important voice condemning antisemitism.

“He is a model not only for athletes but for every human soul,” he said.

On the podcast, Leonard told Sherman that a visit with Pinny Andrusier, who directs the Chabad of Southwest Broward in Florida, brought him to tears when the rabbi told him, “You’re a good man with a good soul, but I want you to understand that this happened for you, not to you.”

Leonard was 6 when his father died. More recently, he has wanted to “run away from everything”—particularly the NBA and the media, he told Sherman. Then pregnant with their son, his wife calmed and redirected him. She asked what he would say if his son quit something major in the future, citing him as a role model.

“I sat there for a minute and I said, ‘Oh my gosh, she’s right,’” Leonard said on the podcast.

He admitted to Sherman that he was scared as he met with Jewish officials. “I was terrified of what people thought of me,” he said.

He admitted he made a “huge mistake,” but the experience has afforded him the opportunity to meet and speak with Jewish leaders and youth. A five-hour dinner at Chabad gave him strength and hope.

The athlete interviewed with Jeremy Schapp, of ESPN’s “Outside the Lines,” and believes he explained himself sufficiently in the program which aired this week. If those who listen remain against him, “That’s on them, not me,” he said.

His other meetings with Jews include talking with two Holocaust survivors in Boca Raton, which he said blew him away, and several lunches with Efrem Goldberg, rabbi of the Boca Raton Synagogue (Orthodox). The latter called him an ally against antisemitism.

Goldberg hosted Leonard on his podcast “Behind the Bima” last November. (A bima is a lectern.)

Leonard explained that he had “a moment of extreme ignorance” that fateful day, years ago. He thanked the Boca Raton rabbi for instructing him and said he did not want listeners to think he was going through motions just to clear his name.

“It just hurts that I hurt people,” Leonard said.

He added that he deserved to be punished. On the podcast, Goldberg said piling social media criticism on the athlete without knowing the work Leonard has done since the incident, is “grossly unfair.” Instead, others should follow up to see what has ensued since the incident, and the degree to which Leonard has sought to improve himself and make amends.

When Goldberg observed Leonard crying during one of their conversations, he believes he “saw right from my heart into yours, and I never had a doubt,” he told Leonard on the podcast. He credited the athlete for neither doubling down nor acting like he was a victim. He cautioned that he is not a global spokesman for Judaism, but volunteered, “You were forgiven a long time ago.”

Leonard appreciated that Goldberg told him how necessary it was to forgive himself.

“To see the love from the Jewish community in such quick time after everything had happened, I was almost in shock,” Leonard said. (Another shock? The murder threats his wife received.)

When Leonard said he has done teshuvah, he pronounced the Hebrew word correctly. “There is real pain here,” he said, of antisemitism in America.

Leonard, who is 7-foot-1 entered the NBA in 2012 and played for the Portland Trail Blazers and then Miami. He has started 93 of 447 games, averaging 5.6 points and 3.9 rebounds. Shoulder surgery, an ankle injury and nerve issues have been setbacks.

His best personal game came on May 21, 2019, when he scored 30 points and 12 rebounds, but the game was a playoff loss to the Golden State Warriors.

Will he have the chance to improve on those numbers?

Leonard told Schapp he had no idea the word he used was insulting to Jews. He felt he had destroyed his own life, and at times did not want to go on. He was devastated to hurt so many and to lose his job.

He said he was sad that he was losing his job and that he hurt people. He didn’t name them, but several teams are showing interest in signing him. If one does, his would be a redemption story.

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