JERUSALEM — For Amar’e Stoudemire, the six-foot-11 forward for the New York Knicks, the Maccabiah Games opening ceremonies were hectic, even chaotic.
Seemingly every one of the 9,000 athletes waiting to parade through Teddy Stadium last month saw, touched, pointed to or took pictures with Stoudemire, who appeared to revel in the attention.
Stoudemire, who is serving as assistant coach of the Canadian basketball team, repeatedly rebuffed members of the Canadian delegation who offered escorts to a less hectic spot.
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 the Australians, the Germans, British and Hungarians.
A few U.S. athletes chanted, “Let’s go Knicks!”
As long as it was a group photo, Stoudemire obliged, even waiting patiently as the requesting players assembled. For more than three hours, the cameras clicked.
Stoudemire has long believed he has Jewish roots – or as he told JTA in an exclusive interview, Hebrew roots.
“I’m not a religious person, I’m more of a spiritual person, so I follow the rules of the Bible that co-ordinate 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, could not pinpoint his specific biblical observances, but he indicated that he strove to live an ethical and meaningful life.
Nor had he read up on Israel or Judaism in advance of this trip. But he does show off his Jewish symbols: a Star of David tattoo on his left thumb and a diamond YHWH charm spelling out God’s unspoken name on his gold necklace.
He has been influenced on his spiritual path by his parents, who, he says, are “both Hebrew.”
Stoudemire had already shaken off the Canadian team’s difficult journey to Israel. Its plane was delayed for three hours at the Toronto airport and, upon reaching Israel, circled several times because an emergency landing at Ben Gurion Airport had blocked a runway. The plane was eventually diverted to Cyprus, and landed in Israel five hours late.
That evening, the bus to the team’s first practice came an hour and a half late. Afterward, 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.
“Through DNA, you can prove the Hebrew tribe,” he said.
“I studied history,” he added. “History helps to line things up for you. Just reading the Scriptures gives you an insight into what the history is. It gives you a good enlightenment into everything… You understand certain customs and how to live. The Jewish culture has been able to somewhat embody the Scriptures.”
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 Holidays. 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 his players than his own spiritual journey. Stoudemire says he relishes their desire to improve and believes he has much basketball wisdom to impart.
“When he speaks, they listen,” said John Dore during the Games, coaching his fifth Canadian Maccabiah team. “They’re learning from one of the greats in the game.”
At the practice facility, Stoudemire indulged a query about his 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. “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.”