At first, without thinking, rage is the appropriate response to seeing Meyers Leonard’s re-entry back into the NBA, as it was reported on Tuesday he’ll sign a 10-day contract with the Milwaukee Bucks after being out of the league for nearly two years after uttering an antisemitic slur on a video-game live stream. The instantaneous visceral reaction should be attributed to Leonard spouting not just any derogatory term but the most offensive thing anyone can utter to a member of the Jewish people.
Leonard said the two-word phrase “kike bitch” with a conviction like he’d used the term before while playing Call of Duty. It’s not clear that he used the words to describe a Jewish person playing alongside him, but it’s evident someone got in his ear quickly to let Leonard know how badly he messed up with saying two words, as he doesn’t get a word in on the phone call that starts seconds after he said the disgusting phrase. According to the American Jewish Committee, the antisemitic slur likely comes from the Yiddish word for circle, kikel, which was a reference to Jewish immigrants signing their entry forms at Ellis Island with circles as opposed to crosses, which the Jewish people associated closely with Christianity.
Second chances are deserved — if earned
It was always going to be tough for Leonard to outrun such an incident without returning to basketball and speaking about how much he’s learned multiple times in the aftermath publicly. Second chances are always deserved for those who do the work to earn them. And in my book, as a proud member of the Jewish people, Leonard has mostly done that. Leonard still needs to make the final peace offering, showing remorse in front of the NBA’s audience, the ones that primarily know him for what he can do on the hardwood and not with a controller in his hand. The audience that knows Leonard more for saying kike has the opportunity to see he’s tried multiple forms of outreach in the Jewish community.
Leonard spoke on the incident publicly last year with the Chabad house at Illinois, his alma mater, reportedly attended a dinner with Holocaust survivors, had conversations with Jewish leaders, and participated in a program to distribute meals to Jewish families in Miami. Per the Chicago Tribune, Leonard visited a Holocaust museum and put on basketball camps for Jewish children. In terms of correcting a massive mistake, those are all good-faith gestures. Without messing up again, and possibly making some sort of donation to a Milwaukee-area Jewish foundation, Leonard should be welcomed back to the NBA.
It’d be impossible to determine which was worse between Leonard’s actions, with his 23-month absence from the NBA appearing more to do to with his physical health than any blowback from saying the antisemitic slur, compared to Kyrie Irving’s promotion of an antisemitic project and his refusal to condemn antisemitism. Both unequivocally have to do with hatred of the Jewish people, with the latter only apologizing after he was suspended and his paycheck was taken away.
The Meyers Leonard and Kyrie Irving situations are different — but not because of skin color
I get it. When at his best, Irving is an African-American top-five guard in the NBA, while Leonard is a White rotational big man. Having different reactions to both situations has nothing to do with the color of their skin. One has gone out of his way to repent for using a disgusting word. That same apology never truly came from Irving. And definitely didn’t until the damage with his magnified stardom was already done. Six days after Irving’s promotion of the antisemitic project, it held three different spots on Amazon’s bestseller list of religion and spirituality texts. The audiobook was No. 1, the original paperback was No. 5 and a revised version was No. 7. The chance the book holds a trio of top-seven spots on a bestseller list without Irving is zero. What Leonard said was beyond comprehension. How Irving acted during that situation was unreasonable.
What Leonard did after being negligent to the Jewish people is exactly what many of us hoped for from Irving. The Anti-Defamation League originally accepted $500,000 each from Irving and the Nets, but they refused the donation after more of Irving’s comments came to light. And no further outreach was taken by Irving during his time in Brooklyn. It’s hard to believe Irving doesn’t understand the grandeur of what he did wrong, especially now with Mark Cuban, who is Jewish, owning the team he plays for. While Leonard’s actions have shown a place to move on from a despicable action, Irving recently removed his post-suspension apology from his social media.
And then there are comments from LeBron James, who claims he’s proud of the man Irving has become. James has shown loyalty to Irving throughout his turbulent last few years, whether it’s through his antisemitic promotion, refusing to take the coronavirus vaccine, or saying that the Earth is flat. And James might be lobbying to have a reunion this offseason with Irving after picking him for his All-Star team last week. Saying you’re proud of the man Irving has become is quite a slap in the face to the Jewish people when he’s shown no consistent remorse for his actions.
Antisemitism has no place in the NBA, in sports, or truly anywhere, and stamping it out in all forms is an ongoing fight. Leonard’s re-entry into the league may be met with resistance from some. But he, unlike Irving, has shown an ability to change. I’m still hopeful we’ll see Irving do something for the Jewish community when the season is over and he won’t have to focus on winning a championship with Luka Doncic. After all, Leonard was basically unemployed for two years, and Irving never lost his job. How long does it truly take to write a check to a Jewish charity? Or spend one day taking a visit to a Jewish place of worship or a museum, which there is no shortage of in New York and exist in Dallas as well? Sweeping Leonard’s and Irving’s actions under the rug aren’t possible, but only one of them is acting like they’re genuinely sorry.