The Mistake Meyers Leonard Didn’t Understand

Meyers Leonard has known hardship in his life so this current self-inflicted wound will pass.  His father was killed when he was six, an accident, but that hardly matters when you are a young boy. His mother, an athlete, was stricken with debilitating pain because of a horseback injury and she was largely housebound. Leonard became close with the Siler family who filled in the gaps of the father who was missing and the mother who was suffering. They were instrumental in raising him as much as his mother Tracie. For Meyers Leonard, his childhood was a village experience.

Leonard went to Illinois and was drafted by Portland and stayed seven years before his trade to Miami. In 393 games in Portland, Leonard averaged 5.6 ppg and 3.7 rebounds. A seven-footer, his offense was more polished than his defense which wasn’t noteworthy. He couldn’t defend his position and rarely was a starter.

This season, Leonard has been on the shelf because of a shoulder injury that needed surgery. So when the Miami Heat says Leonard will be away from the team because of his anti-Semitic slur, it’s duplicitous. He can’t play. It’s not like they made some heroic stand over racism and benched a rotational player. They just pushed Leonard into more isolation as a punishment.

Leonard, of course, got himself into this mess and he’ll have to dig himself out. He was playing Call of Duty on Twitch, a live stream, when in a battle sequence he called someone he was trying to kill a “kike.” If we take Leonard at his word. he didn’t understand the layered meaning of the word, nor why the reaction has been swift. Patriots receiver Julian Edelman offered to meet with Leonard as a history lesson, to teach him some things.

Just because we are in cancel culture doesn’t excuse that those who have higher platforms. They have a responsibility for what they say. I was watching an NBA game a decade ago, the Lakers were in Orlando. It was game 4 of the NBA Finals. The Lakers were leading the series 2-1 and it looked like Orlando was going to tie the series. Dwight Howard missed two free throws, the Magic were up by 3. Lakers ball with 8 seconds left. Kobe Bryant passed to Trevor Ariza who passed to Derek Fisher who drained a three with four seconds left. I never forgot what Jeff Van Gundy said afterward:

“Player’s I.Q. always astounds me not knowing time, score, and situation.”

Although Van Gundy was strictly talking about on-court situations, it applies to life in general, particularly if you have a professional profile that can be damaged.

You must know time, score, and situation. Meyers Leonard either didn’t, or he felt his privilege meant it didn’t matter. He didn’t have to know what kike meant because he was never traumatized by it.

Years ago, comedian George Carlin had a funny bit about seven dirty words. The words were sh*t, piss, f*ck, c*nt, c***sucker, motherf*****, and tits. It was 1972. The irony is if Meyers Leonard had said any of those words with the exception of c*nt, he wouldn’t be shunned. In 1972, racial slurs weren’t dirty words.

But as Van Gundy noted, it’s Leonard’s job to understand the line in the sand. Things have changed. He has to be self-aware and educated.

It’s hard to know the origin of the slur kike but an explanation that has been accepted was posited by Leo Rosten, a political scientist, and Yiddish lexicographer. He explained that when immigrants came to Ellis Island, New York they were asked to sign their name on a document. Many were illiterate and just used the symbol X. Jews didn’t want to use X because that had a Christianity look, similar to a cross. And so instead of X they drew a circle.  The Yiddish word for circle is kikel. Little circle is kikeleh. Those receiving immigrants at Ellis Island began calling the ones who signed with a circle “kikel” which was shortened to “kike.”

Other political scientists explain that “kike” was used derogatorily to categorize eastern European and Russian Jews. The slur was picked up by non-Jews. There is debate about who used it first. Non-Jews as a put down or Jews themselves to demean Jewish immigrants. That hardly matters. The saying of it was normalized as slander and a way to diminish someone based on religion and ethnicity.

That Leonard got himself mixed up in it is sort of shocking considering this day and age but then not really. We are in a terrible time of contempt and incivility where throwing out lethal bombs is clickbait. It will get you both followers and trolls.

Before this, Leonard’s career has been mostly unremarkable. His most controversial thing was when he was one of 2 NBA players, Jonathon Issac being the other, who stood for the National Anthem doing the bubble. Many took that as a political statement against the kind of brutality black people have to face on the regular. Add in his anti-Semitic slur and the perception of Leonard has changed overnight.

Because, and this is the important part, he didn’t know history.