After a two year hiatus from the NBA, 30 year old 7 foot center Meyers Leonard (12th pick in the 2012 draft) is returning to the court after signing a ten day contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. Leonard has been out of the league since March of 2021 after he used an antisemitic slur during a livestream of him playing “Call of Duty: Warzone.” In an Instagram post Leonard apologized saying, “I am deeply sorry for using an anti-Semitic slur during a livestream yesterday. My ignorance about its history and how offensive it is to the Jewish community is absolutely not an excuse and I was just wrong. I am now more aware of its meaning and I am committed to properly seeking out people who can help educate me about this type of hate and how we can fight it. I acknowledge and own my mistake and there’s no running from something like this that is so hurtful to someone else. This is not a proper representation of who I am and I want to apologize to the Arisons (the Heat’s Jewish owner), my teammates, coaches, front office and everyone associated with the Miami Heat organization, to my family, to our loyal fans and to others in the Jewish community who I have hurt. I promise to do better and know that my future actions will be more powerful than my use of this word.” He was fined 50,000 dollars by the NBA, suspended for one week and was instructed to participate in a cultural diversity program. Leonard, who had been playing for the Miami Heat, was put on indefinite leave from the team and was traded to Oklahoma City Thunder one week later. He has not played an NBA game since.
In January of 2022 Leonard addressed his alma mater, the University of Illinois, about the incident both in a press conference before a school basketball game and during a televised forum with Rabbi Dovid Teichtel, director of the Chabad house of the university. Speaking about his mental state in the aftermath of the incident he related, “I’ll be honest: I thank God I didn’t have a gun in the house that day, if you know what I mean.”
Several weeks ago, Leonard opened up to ESPN’s Jeremy Schaap in an interview for Outside the Lines.
Here are two of the key excerpts from that interview:
When asked if he knew anything about the slur that he uttered Leonard responded, “Absolutely not. There are absolutely no excuses for what happened that day and ignorance sadly is a very real thing and that’s what it was. I am not running from this but I did not know that it happened.”
“I feel like I’m living in a bad dream… There’s not a hateful cell in my body. And I know that I made a huge, huge mistake.”
In the interview Leonard comes off across as exceptionally genuine in owning his mistake and was moved to tears when speaking about his experience.
In the days after the incident went viral on social media Leonard sought guidance from a Chabad Rabbi in South Florida, Rabbi Pinny Andrusier, who had a long standing relationship with the Miami Heat. (Andrusier lit a Menorah at a game in 1987 and partnered with other Chabad Rabbi’s to organize the Heat’s Jewish Heritage Night.) Leonard, who had never been to a Shul before, met with Rabbi Andrusier in Shul and not being able to contain himself he broke down crying. Recalling what Rabbi Andrusier told him that morning Leonard relates that Rabbi Andrusier said, “Meyers I need to tell you something. You are a good man with a good soul. I promise I will help you through this. This happened for you, not to you. You will understand eventually.”
Andrusier would go on to invite Leonard to a dinner with Holocaust survivors and facilitate a community service event in which Leonard would distribute meals to Jewish families in Miami. He has also visited the Holocaust Museum and has run basketball camps for Jewish children. Leonard also met with representatives of the Anti-Defamation League and the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Josh Sayles, the federation’s director of Jewish Community and Government Relations, related that “Meyers is really interested in putting in the hard work and learning about the Jewish community.” The ADL issued a statement which said, “We are encouraged by his efforts to educate himself about the Jewish community, antisemitism, and the impact of his words, and that he has matched his apology with concrete actions…”
Leonard had recently begun working out for NBA teams after recovering from a surgically related nerve damage injury. In response NBA spokesman Mike Bass said, “Since his use of a derogatory and unacceptable term in 2021, Meyers Leonard has been held accountable and has dedicated considerable time and effort to understand the impact of his comment. He has met with numerous leaders in the Jewish community and participated in community programs to educate himself and use his platform to share his learnings with others.”
There are three important aspects of this episode that I would like to unpack. The first is the capacity for our errors to be a tool for self discovery.
In the aftermath of his livestream Leonard received death threats for his antisemitic remarks. The contempt for him on social media was viral. Leonard relates that the experience of being hated by that many people forced him to seek psychological counseling. As part of the process he examined and processed the death of his own father which until that point had been lingering within. In Leonard’s own words, “I seek love because of trauma from my childhood, and so often, we run from asking for help. I’m a pretty tough basketball player, I feel like, but from the inside, no sir. I was dying, literally.” Hermann Cohen, Jewish neo-Kantian philosopher, wrote, “In myself, I have to study sin, and through sin I must learn to know myself.” We often discover ourselves within our worst moments. Rabbi Dovid Bashevkin, in his magnum opus Sin•a•gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought, writes, “Human individuality emerges through the friction of moral failure and aspiration. The process of failure and atonement as a medium for individual discovery is the province of religion alone. Systemic philosophy gave us societal norms; only through the sin and strivings provided by religion are individuals created.” The backlash to Leonard’s remarks led to suicidal ideations and ultimately to get the help that he had so long needed.
The second aspect of this episode that I would like to unpack is how we take responsibility in the face of our sins. As an example of a botched apology , Bashevkin quotes Senator Bob Packwood who in 1992 responded to allegations of sexual impropriety saying, “If any of my comments or actions have indeed been unwelcome, or if I have conducted myself in any way that has caused any individual discomfort or embarrassment for that I am sincerely sorry.” The apology was doomed the moment he uttered the word “if”. Bashevkin also addresses the expression “mistakes were made” as an example of an empty apology. Contrast that with Leonard who from the very outset has taken complete responsibility for his actions. “My ignorance about its history and how offensive it is to the Jewish community is absolutely not an excuse and I was just wrong… I acknowledge and own my mistake and there’s no running from something like this that is so hurtful to someone else.” In the countless hours they spent together Rabbi Andrusier relates his own experience with Leonard. “He owned up to his mistake. He never denied it.”
But words are cheap. NBA players have access to public relations experts who can carefully craft statements and orchestrate appearances that give the appearance of contrition. (Rabbi Andrusier relates that Leonard has never sought publicity at the events he attended. If pictures were taken it was because Rabbi Andrusier asked for them to be taken even when Leonard was unwilling.) Real change requires meaningful action. Bashevkin quotes from Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Religion, who sees the act of corporate apology as a “ritualistic form of communication.” Burke writes that “Apologies are not just speeches but carefully choreographed rituals that purge organizational guilt and restore social legitimacy. Indeed, nearly all literature on crisis management points to two separate objectives of strategic crisis communications. Firstly, following an organizational lapse such as a leadership scandal or financial fraud, the corporation or institution needs to address the immediate cause of the failure. A second, higher-order step is also necessary. It is not enough to focus narrowly on the current crisis—a broader form of organizational learning is also necessary. The latter step does not just consider the preceding incident but considers the future and opportunities that have been created through the crisis. No wonder, as many have pointed out, that the symbol for crisis in Mandarin is also dangerous opportunity.”
Bashevkin writes beautifully, “Religious repentance can sometimes be considered somewhat transactional. A sin requires an act of repentance. But just as with corporate crisis, it is not enough to have a minimalistic focus on the preceding sin; repentance requires a more holistic approach that considers restoring the sinner’s reputation for religious integrity as well as optimizing the opportunities for improvement that emerge in times of personal crisis.”
Our mistakes are opportunities to be better than we were before. Recall the words Rabbi Andrusier told Leonards when they first met: “This happened for you, not to you. You will understand eventually.” Rabbi Efrem Goldberg, senior Rabbi of Boca Raton Synagogue, hosted Leonard on his popular podcast, “Behind the Bima” and told Leonard, “This is a piece of your life and now it’s informing your life going forward. You’ve become a friend and an advocate and that same large platform that drew all the negativity is the same large platform that you’re using to spread light and positivity.” Leonard’s mistake has brought him to a place that one imagines he never would have achieved had it not been for those terrible words on that day. He is a friend to the Jewish community and a source of light in a world that has grown increasingly darker as antisemitism is on the rise. In our own lives we would do well to frame our failures as opportunities for self discovery. In our process we have the capacity to become agents of change in the very arena where we caused damage.
Finally we must examine the case for forgiveness. Addressing a Jewish youth group Leonard said, “I made a big mistake. I think most of you in the crowd probably know what happened. But the thing that I am most thankful for is the grace and forgiveness I’ve been shown by the Jewish Community.”
Judaism is a religion that is built on the notion of second chances. Chazal teach us that even before the creation of the world Hashem created the notion of Teshuva. Our mistakes are inevitable. There is always room for the sincere penitent. The Alter Rebbe in Tanya explains that even those sins for which Chazal say there can be no Teshuva can still be forgiven when a higher level of Tesuva is employed. We are called upon to act as God does. Bashevkin points out that forgiveness is about creating space for another. Even the word Mechila comes from the word chalal which means space. “When we forgive we create space for another in our lives. And when we forgive we create space in ourselves by no longer clinging to our wounds and offenses. Whether it is half or whole, the sacred ritual of forgiveness creates space in ourselves and others so we can be absolved and purified.”
Leonard has done everything we could have asked him to do. He owned his mistake completely. He sought no publicity. He educated himself. He has taken real steps to be a force of light in this particular area. Those who have engaged with him say that his sincerity is authentic. And now it is our turn to forgive him. We ought to be a nation that creates space for those who do sincere Teshuva. We are all human and mistakes are part of the process. Celebrating the sincere Baal Teshuva sends a strong message to our community that there is space for those who err. It allows us to move forward as we confront our own pain. As a long suffering Knicks fan I cannot in good conscience root for the Bucks, but when Leonard does take the floor I will be rooting for him. Not as a basketball player but as a man who has set an example of what it looks like to grow from our worst moments.