When you embark on a journey of discovery, there’s no way to know where it will take you.
For New York Knicks forward Amar’e Stoudemire the path has led him to coaching, to Canada, and this week to Israel, all in one fell swoop.
On Thursday he marched in the opening ceremonies of the 19th Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem as part of the Canadian delegation at what are known as the Jewish Olympics.
On Friday he will be on the bench as an assistant coach with Canada’s men’s basketball team, his “Black Jesus’ tattoo written in cursive on his neck peaking just above his collar only adding only one more layer of incongruity to the tale.
“I’m probably the only guy in Israel with one of those,” Stoudemire said with a laugh in an interview in Toronto, where the Canadian team held training camp before leaving for Israel.
Stoudemire’s involvement with the Canadian team was sparked by his exploration of his Hebrew roots, which became public in 2010 when he made his first trip to Israel.
He says he was introduced to the culture through his mother and stepfather and curiosity has been piqued the more he studies.
“I just read the Bible,” he says. “My family, my mother and father introduced it to me and I’ve just been studying it from that point. Once you understand the scriptures then you understand who the Jewish people are.
“And when you research [black history] you realize that we’ve never really had a nationality and then the curiosity kicks in and you start reading the scripture and connecting these dots and you realize that we are Hebrews.”
After Stoudemire’s interest in Jewish culture became widely known, it was up to Alex Brainis, chairman of the national athletic committee for Maccabi Canada to reach out.
Brainis played for longtime Canadian coach John Dore (also the head coach for Concordia University) who had a former Toronto Raptors general manager Glen Grunwald as his assistant coach in 2005.
With Grunwald now general manager with the Knicks, Brainis asked if he would put him touch with Stoudemire about a coaching opportunity.
The contact was made and Stoudemire has been in with both feet ever since. A six-time NBA all-star and former NBA Rookie of the Year, Stoudemire’s basketball skills are beyond repute. The question was what he would bring to coaching.
“It’s not an NBA level, but for them to learn hands-on from me how to play the game and then get to play for a gold medal? It’s only right for me to teach them the game the right way so they can have fun,” says Stoudemire.
“They may not be able to jump and dunk the ball through the hoop, but they can still cut backdoor for the layup. It’s still two points, the rules and the teaching strategies are the same.”
And it’s more than just basketball.
Stoudemire is nothing if not eclectic. He’s written children’s books; he’s got a charitable foundation. He’s been the subject of a documentary. He’s a multi-millionaire celebrity who came from humble beginnings in Central Florida, whose father died when he was 12, has since lost a brother and whose mother and other brother have had multiple scrapes with the law.
Through it all Stoudemire, a married father of four, has kept moving, kept searching.
“He’s looking into his roots; he’s looking into the history of Black Jews; he’s a very interesting individual, he’s got a lot to bring to the table every day and it’s not just basketball,” says Dore. “He’s can relate to the guys about music, books, history. It’s impressive.”
Already on this trip he’s visited at home with Israeli president Shimon Peres who hosted him and Dore personally (“A wow moment,” says Dore).
He’s part of a group exploring buying a franchise in Israel’s top basketball league. There’s an offer to play for Israel’s national team.
This fall Stoudemire will be back with the Knicks and back for his 12th season in the NBA, trying to knock off the Miami Heat and make a run at an NBA title.
But it’s clear that will only be part of his personal journey, not the destination.