It’s not every day that you can sit down and discuss religion with a six-time NBA All Star and future Hall of Fame player. And it’s certainly not every day that you can discuss Judaism as that religion. But that was the case when Hillel@Home hosted a Diversity in Jewish Life conversation with Amar’e Stoudemire this past week just ahead of the Passover holiday.
Stoudemire is currently playing with Maccabi Tel Aviv after beginning the season in China. Last year, the player formally known as “STAT” (Standing Tall and Talented) plied his trade with Hapoel Jerusalem. The Florida native, who decided to stay in Israel during the coronavirus outbreak, began talking about his desire to reach God through Judaism.
“The most important factor for me in getting involved with Judaism is that when I was young I was always pursuing Go,” said Stoudemire. “By converting to Judaism I have been able to learn Torah at a very high level. There’s so much to learn and everything is based upon God and is God-driven. By praying three times a day one is always surrounded by God.”
With the current coronavirus pandemic affecting the entire planet, Stoudemire is thankful that he is in the Holy Land.
“It’s been great in Israel. We have been ahead of the curve and we went into quarantine in advance. We are on lockdown where we can’t go to the beach, but we can go to the pharmacies and supermarkets. Everyone has a mask and we are all social distancing. Israel has been rated one of the safest places in the world, top 10 in fact.”
While the 37-year old can’t physically go out to learn Torah, thanks to modern technology he’s been able to keep up to date right from his home.
“I’ve been able to learn as much as I possibly could. I take part in Torah classes and shiurim via Zoom. I’ve been spending time with my family as my son is with me as well as learning Torah. My son has been online with school and I’m also preparing all the meals for him. As a family we have always eaten kosher, kept Shabbat and Yom Tov, so the family is very much used to it.”
Stoudemire reflected back to his time as a youth and how he began to get involved with religion.
“I grew up in an unstable situation as a youth. My father passed away at the age of 12 and I helped raise my brother. In fact, I ended up going to five high schools. I didn’t know what school to choose as I was a good basketball player. I didn’t really know the terminology as a basketball player and I had to learn on the fly in the NBA. There were obstacles, but the obstacles were there in order to be able to elevate above them.
“I began to learn more about Judaism when I was in New York, including the Hebrew months and the mishnah. I went to lectures and I had a Passover Seder with the rabbi at NYU. I received my first siddur, Jewish prayer book, when I was visiting Paris and Judaism was what I was gravitating to.”
The big man’s real breakthrough with Judaism began in 2010, when he made his first trip to Israel.
“When I traveled here in 2010 knew I wanted to possibly come back and live here. No one even knew about my roots and it was the same summer that I signed with the Knicks. I knew then that I wanted to move back and reconnect with Torah.”
When Stoudemire was playing in the NBA, some of the players wanted him to be more vocal about his religion, but he also understood that although he was taking a righteous path and not everyone was ready for that yet.
“I’d tell myself not to party so much, I enjoyed my 20s, but I made sure to train at a high level and I was learning bible then as well and applying Torah to everyday life. I received big time inspirational messages from the fans, not just as a man but as a basketball player and a philanthropist.
“I was proud to learn how to live in the divine presence of God where you learn how you live and how treat people. With middot you learn how to live life, then it’s following the commandments and the laws in order to maintain a certain lifestyle. It goes a long way as you know that you are trying to improve humanity.”
The former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks star continued about having faith, emunah, in God.
“If we know that God is the ultimate creator then you know that everything is happening because of him. How can I lose faith is if this all this is part of the game plan?
“I always had self confidence. I was always one of the bigger guys, always one of the captains and always one of the better players on my team. There were times I didn’t have self confidence when I was learning Hebrew. It was challenging and very uncomfortable, it took a very long time. In synagogue it took time as well. But I’ve had a few chavrusas, study partners, that have helped me along the way.”
There are a number of projects that the Israeli-American had started a number of years ago, including Stoudemire Farms, a family-run sustainable kosher operation based in Hyde Park, New York.
“This is something the world needs right now. Having a kosher farm is very important for me because it allows me to love naturally off the land. I’m a farm guy at heart and I love being out in nature.”
When it comes to role models, Stoudemire had a number but two stood out for him.
“I follow a lot of leaders. My first was my father and then I took some positive things from my mother. Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan, Martin Luther King Jr, John Lennon, Bruce Lee. They are very influential when it comes to mastering oneself.
“Tupac was coming from where I was coming from. Inner-city America where we were struggling with some laws and the music he was making was very influential for me as it helped me get through some difficult times. Watching how basketball superstar Michael Jordan handled fame was big for me to watch how he lived his life.
“There’s a lot of passion and projects that one can have and you have to stick to them. Like Nipsey Hussle, the late rapper, entrepreneur and community activist, said, ‘The Marathon continues,’ things will come to fruition. When one has started things far in advance you see how they progress just like my farms and wines.”
Of course, many know that Amar’e began his involvement with Israeli basketball when he decided to become a part owner of Hapoel Jerusalem a number of years before he played for the club.
“I bought into Hapoel Jerusalem in 2012. I’m now playing for the rival team [Maccabi Tel Aviv], so it’s an interesting concept. I wanted to play the rest of my career in Jerusalem, but it didn’t work out contractually. I can’t really be as involved as I would like until I retire, but it’s still good to have since it’s a charity effort in Israel.”
However, as everyone is now battling COVID-19, Stoudemire isn’t on the court and is spending time learning and watching Netflix, including “Unorthodox” and making sure to follow the government’s rules as should everyone else.
“We just have to try and stay safe. We have to stay focused on the guidelines including social distancing, wearing masks and gloves. If we are out in public we are just going to get the essentials and get back home. That’s the key.”