Still Got ‘Game’

Like Budd Schulberg’s “What Makes Sammy Run?” Phillip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” and other milestones of Jewish American literature, Will Eisner’s “Name of the Game” explores the depths of Jewish self-loathing and assimilation. But what separates “Name” — a tale chronicling two immigrant families that merge through marriage for social advancement and then suffer destructive consequences — from the others, is that Eisner’s work is a comic book.

Make that a “graphic novel” — the term attributed to ambitious comics with mature themes and a traditional bound format. Graphic novels have become a multimillion-dollar cash cow. Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns” revolutionized comics in 1986 with its brooding, cynical interpretation of Batman. Art Spiegelman’s nonfiction Holocaust opus, “Maus,” won the Pulitzer Prize.

“I was frankly enthused when Spiegelman got the Pulitzer,” Eisner told The Journal from his Florida studio, “because it gave the medium the credit it deserves.”

Eisner’s latest is a 160-page saga in which the destinies of two social-climbing immigrant families collide. It’s a stunning study of disconnect, in which characters choose money over love, practice infidelity in the bedroom and in the boardroom, and embrace assimilation over identity. “Name” comments on the American Dream, and the lengths some will go to deny themselves in their quest to obtain and maintain it. It was inspired by folk tales, as channeled through the prism of Eisner’s Jewish American experience.

“Jewish and Russian folk literature, they had a similar thread to all of them,” said Eisner, married to wife Ann for 52 years. “Everybody succeeded in elevating themselves, and that’s through marriage — certainly in Yiddish folklore. Nobody succeeds in fairy tales unless they marry the prince or the princess.”

Eisner, who has been writing and drawing graphic novels since the 1970s, actually created this genre. The first graphic novel, his landmark “A Contract with God,” was originally published by Baronet Books in 1978. The Jewish-themed, Bronx-set story depicted protagonist Frimmer Hirsh’s relationship with his Maker.

Eisner also authored a seminal textbook, “Comics and Sequential Art and Graphic Storytelling,” and taught popular cartoonists such as Drew Friedman and Pat McDonnnell at New York’s School of Visual Arts. Since 1988, the Eisner Awards, named in his honor and held annually in San Diego, have become the industry’s Academy Awards.

However, his major contribution to his industry is his classic strip “The Spirit.”

Conceived in 1939 for a newspaper comics supplement, “The Spirit” told the tale of Denny Colt, a policeman reborn as a Stetson-wearing masked detective superhero. Eisner used the strip to redefine the medium by employing cinematic compositions and pacing, noir design sensibilities and a cartoon realism unseen in comics back then. His storytelling style reflected the moviemaking of his day — Fritz Lang, Jacques Tourneur, bringing to comics what Orson Welles brought to movies with “Citizen Kane”: sophistication.

Both “The Spirit” and its creator were a product of what is now called the Golden Age of Comics — a time when New York Jews ruled an industry that was beneath most non-Jews; the same era explored in 2000 by Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” for which Eisner was a consultant.

Since 1978, Eisner has explored his most personal art through his graphic novel format, works that capture facets of his upbringing as the son of Jewish immigrants in 1920s-30s New York. “The Heart of the Storm,” for example, tells his parents’ story — his father was a fine artist from Vienna; his mother of Czech descent.

The Jewishness of Eisner’s tale was never an issue for his publisher.

“They were very supportive and never attempted to make editorial content,” Eisner said, singling out his longtime DC editor Dave Shriner.

Unlike DC’s flagship characters “Superman” and “Batman,” “The Spirit” never materialized in Hollywood, save for an unaired 1984 TV pilot produced by DC’s parent company, Warner Bros. Eisner doesn’t believe “The Spirit” translates to other mediums.

Nor does he even want to return to his iconic character in his own medium. His list of upcoming project ideas has grown too long for him to look back.

“There would only be two reasons I would revisit ‘The Spirit,'” Eisner said. “To prove that I could still run a quarter mile and to make money. I don’t need either.”

Learn more about Will Eisner at

Hoop Dreams

In a Chicago Tribune interview last October, shortly before pro basketball was shut down by a bruising lockout, players’ union chief Billy Hunter waxed sentimental about his lifelong passion for defending the underdog. By way of illustration, he recalled how, as a teen-ager in 1950s-era Cherry Hill, N.J., he used to trade blows with bigots who harassed his best friend for being Jewish. Hunter himself is black.

It was an intriguing reminder of a bygone era of black-Jewish intimacy. But Hunter wasn’t really discussing social history. He was talking, in code, about basketball today. It was a message to players and team owners: Don’t let this labor dispute turn into an ethnic clash.

There was ample reason to worry. Close to 85 percent of the players in the National Basketball Association are black. Nearly half of the 29 teams’ owners are Jewish — far more than in baseball or football. Most top NBA officials are Jews, beginning with Commissioner David Stern. No other arena in American life, except popular music, brings Jews and blacks together in such an intimate, high-profile engagement.

It’s an engagement with deep roots. In its early days, basketball was dominated by Jewish players, nearly as much as black players dominate today. And for the same reason: It was a poor boy’s ticket out of the ghetto. An urban game, requiring no grassy fields or expensive equipment, basketball is open to anyone with a ball and a hoop. “The early great players and progenitors of the sport were Jewish,” says New York Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick.

Then, Jews moved out and blacks moved in. Today, the game resembles nothing so much as an old downtown neighborhood that turned from Jewish to black, leaving behind a Jewish economic presence as landlords and shopkeepers.

Not that the players are living in poverty. But the undercurrents of resentment are there. Last fall, they reached a peak. It wouldn’t have taken much to ignite an ugly black-Jewish confrontation, given the high stakes and raw feelings of the $2 billion basketball contract dispute — not to mention the famously foul-mouthed crudeness of some players. A few players and their advocates actually began grumbling about the owners’ “plantation mentality.”

In the end, no one crossed the line from black-white race-baiting to singling out Jewish owners. Not publicly, anyway. Across the country, Jewish fans, sportswriters and team owners silently braced for anti-Semitism throughout the six-month lockout. It never materialized.

The credit is partly due to Hunter, the union chief. “Billy stood up and said race was not an issue,” says Chicago Tribune sportswriter Sam Smith.

Hunter took a series of small, symbolic steps to forestall ethnic friction. He named the league’s only Jewish player, Orlando Magic center Danny Schayes, son of the legendary player-coach Dolph Schayes, to the negotiating team. Hunter and Schayes both made a point during the talks of peppering their conversation with Yiddish-flavored jokes. Hunter even boned up on the history of black-Jewish ties; aides say a book on the topic has been sitting prominently on his desk for weeks.

“There was some talk on the margins about this being a race thing,” says the union’s press spokesman, Dan Wasserman. “But the simple fact is that Billy Hunter slam-dunked that notion.”

Part of the peacekeeping credit belongs, too, to Commissioner Stern, if only for making the pot so rich. A lawyer by training, Stern took over the NBA in 1984. Since then, he’s utterly transformed the game. By marketing it as celebrity entertainment, complete with stars and sex appeal, he’s moved it from a distant third place in popularity, after baseball and football, to rough equality. And basketball’s revenues have quadrupled.

Most of the players appreciate that, insiders say. “Some complain,” says the New York Post’s Mushnick. “But who made them millionaires?”

Players aren’t the only ones to benefit from Stern’s economic revolution. Team franchises, once money losers, have become fantastically lucrative. The profits, in turn, have lured a whole new generation of investors. “He’s been the single-most effective executive in the history of the sports business,” says Edward Bleier, president of Warner Bros. and close observer of the game.

One result, some say, is a coarser game. Basketball owners, far more than baseball or football owners, are new to the sport, don’t know the inside of the locker room, don’t understand their teams. That, combined with the increased individualism fostered by Stern’s star system, has led to a decline in team morale.

“There’s very little sport left in sports,” says Mushnick. “It’s about money. It’s about a popular culture in free fall. The team doesn’t count anymore. It’s the individual.”

Another result is that certain basic questions about Jewish life in America are getting harder to ignore. What role should Jews be playing in public life? What role should wealth play in Jewish life? Most of all, who are the Jewish role models for tomorrow’s young Jews?

The challenge was raised publicly last September by the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Rabbi Ismar Schorsch, in a speech in Chicago. He blasted Jewish team owners for buying sports teams “as toys” instead of donating their money to Jewish education.

Characteristically, Schorsch bungled his facts and asked the wrong questions. In fact, Jewish sports executives as a group are unusually devoted to Jewish causes. Most are major UJA donors. David Stern has been honored by both UJA and Israel Bonds and personally sponsored a Soviet refugee family. New Jersey Nets owner Henry Taub is a former national chairman of the United Israel Appeal. Washington Wizards owner Abe Pollin actually changed his team’s name from the Bullets after Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated.

Still, Schorsch was onto something. The growing emergence of Jews as team owners symbolizes a deeper change in Jewish life. It’s an unhealthy change, in the most basic sense.

“Sports was a key medium of Americanization for East European Jews,” says University of Minnesota anthropologist Riv-Ellen Prell, author of a forthcoming book about gender and assimilation. “It was a way of overcoming traditional anxieties about the Jewish male body, and the notion of the Jewish male as a victim unable to defend himself. The powerful male body became a potent issue of acculturation for American Jewish men.”

Today, Prell says, we’re moving backward. “What you’re looking at today,” she says, “is the transformation of sports from something Jews did to something Jews own.”

Is that what we want?

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

One Girl’s Basketball Diary

I love basketball. Not as in, I love Neil Diamond,I hum along when he’s on the radio. No.

More like, when I know my team is playing and I’mnot watching, I get the agitated look of a kid with chicken pox onHalloween. During basketball season, my life is scheduled aroundgames; people look at me askance when I grab the sports section andleave the rest of the paper.

In high school, my brother was a star athlete,building camaraderie with his peers, figuring out how to losegracefully, how to compete, how to snatch victory from the jaws ofdefeat — and generally manifest all other inspiring sportsclichés. Meanwhile, I took ballet lessons, a one-way ticket tosapped self-esteem and bad feet. The most lasting message from thatritual abuse was: “Hips and breasts sure get in the way! Stand in astraight line and avoid all facial expressions! Mesomorphs to theback, please.”

Now, I’m making up for lost time. With every gameI watch, I’m trying to learn the things I missed out on during mysports-free childhood. What’s most compelling for me is not theathletic prowess I see but the mental fortitude, the lack of fear,the drive to win, the player who never chokes, who always makes freethrows during crunch time, who actually wants to take the lastshot.

When I start to lose in life, I tend to throw inthe proverbial towel. It never dawned on me to fight my way back froma deficit. I don’t like to think of myself as a “loser,” but whenfaced with a challenge, what comes most naturally to me is to take tomy bed with a box of Pop Tarts or just have a good, old fashionedanxiety attack. Basketball is changing that by modeling the oppositebehavior: It’s Michael Jordan dominating a playoff game with the flu;it’s Muggsy Bogues becoming a point guard at 5-foot-3; it’s MahmoudAbdul-Rauf being a sharpshooter despite the fact that he hasTourette’s syndrome.

My fascination with basketball was born when I sawthe documentary “Hoop Dreams.” I wanted to find out how the two highschool players featured in the film were doing in college. A coupleof months later, I was a full-fledged fan, fluent in basketball’sparticular argot and easily tossing off phrases such as “shootingfrom downtown,” “going coast to coast” and the advanced “Come on,that was a ticky-tack foul!”

Men test me. They think I’m faking it, as if I’veread some directive from Cosmo that tells me to learn about sports sothat I can “relate” to them. Loving basketball has nothing to do withwanting to impress men. Still, I can’t help but derive pleasure whenI prove that my sports knowledge is both complete andimpassioned.

As a Jewish woman, it’s even more satisfying. Irelish flying in the face of the prissy Private Benjamin stereotypeby yelling things such as “If you’re gonna foul him, foul him hard,Shaq!” I’ve even purchased my own basketball, which I doggedlyattempt to dribble and shoot for hours on end when the good playershave vacated the local blacktop. Someday, maybe I’ll be good enoughto join a pickup game, or even earn the right to trash talk. (Ballettrash-talking just doesn’t work. “Hey, Mikhail, get those plies outof my kitchen. Your pas de deux is more like a pas de don’t.” Seewhat I mean.)

It may sound absurd, but basketball has given mean opening to converse with legions of people I ordinarily wouldn’t– most notably, my brother. Before, our most richly huedconversation sounded like a scene from “The Ice Storm.” Now, we can’tget off the phone, trying to figure out what has gone so terriblyawry for the Golden State Warriors.

For those who have never really watched a game,especially women, I can’t recommend it enough. Like anything, themore you learn, the more you see. Ask a sports fan to watch a gamewith you, to explain how to decipher a team’s box scores in thepaper, to fill you in on any team scandals or personality conflicts.At the very least, you’ll become versed in another slice of the humanexperience. You haven’t got much to lose.

After all, you always miss the shots you don’ttake.

Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething

contributing writer for The JewishJournal.