A Peace Deal Brokered: Talkin’ Basketball with Bethlehem Shoals

Two of my last posts have featured my views on Jews, specifically Jordan Farmar, and their relationship with professional basketball. It was sparked by a post on the basketball blog freedarko.com. My response triggered a second post on their site, that currently has 86 (!) comments on its thread.

Luckily for us, the author of those posts, Bethlehem Shoals, sat down and answered a couple of questions for us about basketball, his Judaism and his love for awkward shooting players with big noses.fredarkobook.jpgJM: A lot of our readers may not know what FreeDarko is all about. Can you tell us what it is and what made you guys start your site?

BS: We like to describe FreeDarko as a basketball think tank, which is a fancy way of saying that we write about basketball in more pretentious, academic, creative, and deliberately bizarre ways than mainstream journalists. It stems from our shared outlook on sports, which involves being as interested in the style and psychology of individual athletes as whether their teams win or lose; this also spills over into issues of identity and politics.

We started it because, embarrassingly, we were already writing mini-essays on our fantasy basketball league’s message board, and decided we might as well take it public.

JM: Your pseudo name is Bethlehem Shoals. Is there anything Jewish to that?

BS: Actually, quite the opposite. An African-American friend of mine who also grew up in the South challenged me to come up with the best old church-going lady name I could think of. Bethlehem Shoals jumped out of my mouth, and she called me that for the next few months.

When it came time to start a blog, I went with the only silly name I’d ever had. Though there’s a chance that some Jews were involved in Bethlehem Records or Muscle Shoals Studios, the sources for the name. Well, probably not Muscle Shoals. Strangely, people figure that “Bethlehem” is an allusion to the Holy Land, which is stupid, since that’s the least Jewish town in all of Israel.

JM: We got in contact with each other because I took issue with how you view Jordan Farmar’s Judaism in his game. Do you want to elaborate on why you don’t think his Judaism is as important to his game as I think it is?

BS: I see where you’re coming from: He’s a practicing Jew, you’re Jewish, and therefore you’re proud to have him around. I guess it all depends on what your notion of Jewish identity is. Personally, I’m just as invested in the characteristics that mark certain artists and writers as “Jewish,” or even the kinds of personalities I’m drawn to–which, more often than not, are attached to Jews.

The Woody Allen example was a bad, and obvious, one, but when I look at who I am, and my place in American society, I definitely believe in a sense of community based around–at the risk of sounding totally 19th century–a certain ethnic character. In our case, of course, a lot of it has to do with questioning our character, not knowing where we fit in, what’s ours and what isn’t, and why we care that much to begin with.

As I said in one of my posts, that contradicts the version of American Jewry that deals in absolute poles of assimilation, aliyah, or Orthodoxy. There are interactions between these three, but it’s not the same as an essential state of confusion and contradiction. And yes, you’re right, I don’t really see Israel as figuring that prominently in my Jewish identity, unless you’re talking about the place in 1914.

JM: There are plenty of professional Jewish baseball players and even some Jewish football players. Why is it that Farmar is currently the only Jew in the league? There are tons of Jews who are between 5’11 and 6’6. Do you think it’s a cultural thing?

BS: I don’t think it’s a cultural thing at all. Basketball is mostly identified with African-Americans now, and lord knows Jews have a long history of admiring/ripping off/sort of being down with black cultural forms. I think, to revert to the most cliched answer possible, it is what it is.

JM: You talk a lot about style of play when it comes to Farmar. Who in the league plays the most Jewish? I’m going with Matt Bonner. The man took the freakin’ subway to work while playing for the Raptors.

BS: See, that’s the thing: I want a Jewish player I can get excited about. That’s why, though Bonner once won a dunk contest in high school (was it McDonald’s?), I’m imagining some sort of awkward-yet-athletic slasher with weird timing, good court vision, and a high basketball IQ. I guess I just described Manu Ginobli, didn’t I? Or, as I said in the comments section of my second post, a reincarnated, updated Jack Molinas.

JM: Is Jon Scheyer, the guard at Duke, the next Jewish Jordan? The kid can ball.

BS: Given where I grew up, I don’t watch Duke, and only made an exception when Jason Williams was there.

A propos of nothing, here’s a shocking lost chapter to the Tamir Goodman saga written by a FreeDarko contributor. All true, too.

Fair enough, but let’s say, hypothetically, that Scheyer makes it big in the NBA and has what you define as a Jewish style of basketball. Being a UNC fan, could you root for him? After all, I root for Jordan Farmar and I’m from Sacramento. And if not, am I a traitor?

BS: That’s another thing about FreeDarko: We eschew team loyalty/hatred unless there’s a darn good reason for it. Like, you hate or love the players on the team at that moment. The one exception to that is Duke. So yeah, I’d root for him, provided he could shed that Duke taint like certain NBA players (Elton Brand, Corey Maggette) have.

JM: Finally, do you think that Commissioners David Stern (NBA), Bud Selig (MLB) and Gary Bettman (NHL) are secretly members of the Elders of Zion and running sports leagues is just a way to control the world?

BS: I’ve long called the Stern “the original Elder of Zion,” which kind of makes no sense, but whatever. We thought of doing a shirt once, but I didn’t think anyone would buy it. It was in our book at one point, but the lawyers made us cut it because it counted as libel.

Bethlehem Shoals, born Nathaniel Friedman, is the chief architect of FreeDarko.com and a co-author of The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac. He is a regular contributor for SportingNews.com and SLAM, and has also written for The Nation, Slate, Spin, McSweeneys.com, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Shoals was raised a faculty brat in Chapel Hill, NC, and attended a conservative shul with a reconstructionist rabbi who reminded him of Bill Clinton.

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