DETROIT, Michigan (JTA) — Predicting the outcome of a basketball game is a tricky business, but one observer ahead of the start of the Motor City Cruise’s final home game made an easy decision: “There’s going to be a lot of yarmulke here.”
As the bleachers at the 3,000-seat Wayne State University fieldhouse filled with Wisconsin Herd ahead of the team’s Nov. 17 matchup, that was soon proven to be the case.
Dozens of orthodox observers, mostly boys, took their places in the arena to cheer on this NBA G-League team. They danced in front of the dance cam, played dress-up games hosted by the team spokesman during downtime, and posed with Turbo, the Cruise’s blue-haired mascot. All in all, Cruise’s orthodox contingent made up about a fifth of the game’s total viewers – and they were certainly the loudest fans in the stands.
For them, the main attraction wasn’t the team itself, which is 1-6 this season, but their new signing: former Yeshiva University phenomenon Ryan Turell, 23, who joined the team just three weeks earlier and was on the verge of claiming the title to pick court for his second professional home game ever.
“Put Ryan in!” the kids chanted as if cheering for a close friend. A grinning Turell, a Detroit Pistons-branded yarmulke perched atop his signature golden tresses, reveled in their devotion, though at various points he tried to redirect the group’s cheering to something more team-oriented: He urged them, “Let’s Go Cruise.” ‘ to repeat. or the traditional “defense” summon instead of focusing on him.
But it was clear who these kids were, most of them in a section next to the Cruise’s bench seat just behind Turell. When Turell came into play for the first time at the end of the first quarter, the crowd erupted in cheers. They quickly turned their chants to “Pass it to Ryan!” When he pocketed a three, they broke out.
“They listened to us, used Ryan and saw what happened!” enthused Daniel Rodner, an 11-year-old student at the well-known Yeshiva Beth Yehudah Jewish day school, who was at the game with classmates Chaim Indig, Chaim Tzvi Seligson and Yoni Perlman. “We’re five points ahead. Moral of the story: listen to Ryan. And the crowd.”
In contrast to the anti-Semitism controversy that unfolded elsewhere in the NBA, when Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving received a suspension and issued multiple apologies after sharing anti-Semitic content online, a very different scene was playing out in Detroit ab: a picture of Jewish delight at the thrill of having a rooted interest in the game.
“Jews love basketball. They really do,” Turell told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after the game. “The Jewish community is amazing, they come out and cheer 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 and is offering kosher hot dogs at their development team’s concession booth. There are plans for an upcoming Jewish Heritage Night on December 4th, which will 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 played between two local Jewish day school basketball teams at the Pistons’ practice facility. At the Herd game, staff photographers visited the Turell fan section and framed images of cheering children in kippah and tzitzit attire 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 closing minutes. What mattered was that Turell scored five points and saw five minutes of play – inspiring many Orthodox youth. Some of the kids in the stands Thursday said they were fans of the Pistons or the NBA in general, but almost all of them have followed Turell since his Yeshiva days.
“I think that [Jewish] People who would normally dismiss basketball after listening to Kyrie Irving and hearing what he had to say can find a ray of hope in Ryan Turell,” Jonas Singer, who attended the game with his younger brother Leo, told JTA.
The siblings recalled “freaking out” when they heard Turell was coming to Detroit: “I had dreams of him even making it to the G League,” Jonas said. “And when I heard that I could actually see him, I went insane.”
Turell isn’t from Detroit, but his well-documented quest to become the first-ever believing Jew to play in the NBA has captured the hearts and minds of the Motor City’s orthodox population (which includes Gary Torgow, chairman of the sponsor of the Detroit Pistons Huntington Bank). Local synagogues and day schools have organized group outings to see Turell play. He has prayed with them and made a special appearance at Yeshiva Beth Yehudah’s annual fundraising dinner, which in the past has attracted sitting US Presidents and senior state figures.
Turell credited Pistons vice-chairman Arn Tellem for making sure he took all the necessary precautions to be able to keep the Sabbath while he was playing. The franchise has accommodated him with hotel bookings within walking distance to away games on the Sabbath and kosher meals. Turell certainly retaliated by giving him a chance to develop a new following and pull off a PR coup in the process. At his cruise debut on November 7, a fan, Gideon Lopatin, appeared wearing a homemade blonde Turell wig.
Scott Schiff, Cruise’s vice president of business operations, said community engagements for the team have increased this season, but attendance figures with Turell on the team are difficult to compare: Last season was Cruise’s first and Turell only has two Home games completed games to date. Still, Schiff said, there was “a core group of the Jewish population that came out to support him at every game.”
Turell has also taken young Jewish fans to the streets, including at a Cleveland game the following weekend when the local Jewish day school, Fuchs Mizrachi, bought 170 tickets and brought their students to see him play and then speak.
After the Herd game, Turell was mobbed by Jewish children as he came out to sign autographs, including a basketball belonging to Chevy Shepherd, one of the few young Jewish girls who came out to see him play that night. (“Let’s go Ryan,” Shepherd told JTA.)
He also signed Bodner’s kippa, which the boy wanted to show at school the next day.