THE PLANK SEPTEMBER 22, 2009
David Roth is a writer living in New York.
They cruise through cities, klezmer pumping from the speakers of RVs emblazoned with the image of the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. They approach even vaguely Semitic-seeming pedestrians with the question, "Are you Jewish?" and are known for their expansionist approach to growing their congregations. Outreach, in short, is what the orthodox Jewish Chabad Lubavitch movement does.
Chabad's annual fundraising telethon has long been at the center of that program and has featured appearances by scores of celebrities, as well as such spectacles as a yarmulke-clad Bob Dylan providing recorder and flute accompaniment to a guitar-strumming Harry Dean Stanton. In anticipation of this year's telethon, Chabad organized a promotional performance even more surprising than Dylan's flautistry--namely, a fundraising free throw exhibition by Ron Artest, the Lakers forward who became infamous for his own brand of assertive outreach back in 2004, when he stormed into the stands and mixed it up with heckling, beer-tossing fans at the Palace at Auburn Hills. In what even I recognize as a misallocation of journalistic resources, I set out to figure out just how this particular hook-up--Ron-Ron and the Rebbe, tattooed defensive specialist and be-gabardined Hasids--came to be.
Philanthropist Shlomo Rechnitz had agreed to donate $1,000 to Chabad for every free throw a player made in 60 seconds, but the organization was short a shooter. Chabadnik Chaim Marcus turned to Elie Seckbach, an indefatigable Israeli-born journalist whose unique athlete profiles have made him a cult figure (and whose goofy, giddy Jewishness made him the subject of an earnest roundtable debate at the intellectual hoops blog Free Darko). Seckbach called, texted, and emailed, but struck out with players past and present. "To get an NBA player to take part in something like [an early-morning charity event], even those who are not all-star types, is pretty tough," Seckbach says. "And the fact that they don't know Chabad doesn't make it any easier." With time running out, Seckbach decided to try his luck with Artest, reasoning that, "he's one guy you never know what he'll do."
Two days later, Artest showed up at KTLA's studios at 6:50 a.m. for his 8 a.m. free throw shoot, then stayed late to sign autographs and discuss future charitable projects with Marcus. "[Artest] grew up in Queens, so seeing a yarmulke or a Rabbi with a black hat wasn't National Geographic for him," Marcus told me. In all, and in contrast to his fierce on-court rep and off-court rap sheet, Artest was, Marcus says, "absolutely super menschy."
(For a slideshow of Artest's Hasidic shoot-around, click here.)