DETROIT, Michigan (JTA) — Predicting the outcome of a basketball game is tricky business, but one observer prior to the start of the Motor City Cruise’s latest home game made an easy call: “There’s going to be a lot of yarmulkes here.”
As the stands at the 3,000-seat Wayne State University Fieldhouse filled up prior to the team’s Nov. 17 match-up with the Wisconsin Herd, that much soon proved accurate.
For them, the main draw wasn’t the team itself, which is 1-6 on the season, but its new recruit: former Yeshiva University phenom Ryan Turell, 23, who joined the team only three weeks prior and was about to take the court for his second professional home game ever.
But it was clear who these kids, most of them situated in a section flanking the Cruise’s bench directly behind Turell, were there to see. When Turell first entered the game at the bottom of the first quarter, the crowd erupted in cheers. They quickly pivoted their chants to “Pass it to Ryan!” When he sank a three, they erupted.
“They listened to us, put in Ryan, and look what happened!” gushed Daniel Rodner, an 11-year-old student at the prominent local Jewish day school Yeshiva Beth Yehudah, who was at the game with classmates Chaim Indig, Chaim Tzvi Seligson and Yoni Perlman. “We’re up five points. Moral of the story: Listen to Ryan. And the crowd.”
In contrast with the antisemitism controversy unfolding elsewhere in the NBA, as Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving served a suspension and delivered multiple apologies after sharing antisemitic content online, an entirely different scene was playing out in Detroit: an image of Jewish joy at the thrill of having a rooting interest in the game.
“Jews love basketball. They really do,” Turell told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the game. “The Jewish community is incredible, them coming out and cheering me on. It really means the world to me. And it’s special, because it’s bigger than basketball.”
The Pistons franchise has recognized this opportunity, offering kosher hot dogs at their development team’s concession stand. There are plans for an upcoming Jewish Heritage Night on Dec. 4, to feature Hanukkah gelt and menorah giveaways; opportunities for Jewish day school students to high-five and stand with Pistons players during the National Anthem, and a game to be played between two local Jewish day school basketball teams at the Pistons’ practice facility. At the Herd game, staff photographers frequented the Turell fan section, framing images of cheering kippah- and tzitzit-clad children with their favorite player in the background.
It didn’t matter that the Cruise ultimately lost the game 117-105, with the Herd pulling away only in the final minutes. What mattered was that Turell scored five points and saw five minutes of play time — and, in so doing, served as an inspiration to many Orthodox youth. Some of the kids in the stands Thursday said they were fans of the Pistons, or of the NBA more generally, but nearly all of them had followed Turell since his Y.U. days.
“I think that [Jewish] people who would normally, maybe, reject basketball after listening to Kyrie Irving and hearing what he had to say, can find a bright spot with Ryan Turell,” Jonas Singer, who was attending the game with his younger brother Leo, told JTA.
The siblings recalled how they were “freaking out” when they heard Turell would be coming to Detroit: “I was dreaming of him even making the G League,” Jonas said. “And when I heard I was actually going to be able to watch him, I was going insane.”
Turell isn’t from Detroit, but his well-documented quest to become the first-ever observant Jew to play in the NBA has captured the hearts and minds of the Motor City’s Orthodox population (which includes Gary Torgow, the chair of Detroit Pistons sponsor Huntington Bank). Local synagogues and day schools have organized group outings to see Turell play. He’s prayed with them and made a special appearance at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s annual fundraising dinner, which has in the past attracted sitting U.S. presidents and top state figures.
Turell credited Pistons vice chair Arn Tellem, who is Jewish, with ensuring that he had all necessary accommodations to be able to remain Sabbath-observant while he plays. The franchise has accommodated him with hotel bookings within walking distance to away games on the Sabbath and kosher meals. Turell has certainly returned the favor by providing the chance to expand into a new fanbase and score a PR coup in the process. At his Cruise debut Nov. 7, one fan, Gideon Lopatin, showed up with a homemade blonde Turell wig.
Scott Schiff, vice president of business operations for the Cruise, said social engagements for the team are up this season but that attendance numbers with Turell on the team were difficult to compare: Last season was the Cruise’s first ever and Turell has only played two home games to date. Still, Schiff said, there was “a core group of the Jewish population coming out to support him every game.”
Turell has also brought out young Jewish fans on the road, including at a game in Cleveland the following weekend, when local Jewish day schools organized a huge crowd to see him play and speak afterwards.
After the Herd game, Jewish kids mobbed Turell when he came out to sign autographs, including a basketball from Chevy Shepherd, one of the few young Jewish girls who had come out to see him play that night. (“Let’s go Ryan,” Shepherd told JTA.)
He also signed Bodner’s yarmulke, which the boy planned to show off at school the next day.