Today is day one of the Omer. Hesed sheb’hesed. Within loving-kindness there is loving-kindness.
Which basketball player (who wore the #1) most embodies pure hesed? That is our goal, as we begin the Omer tonight. For the first week, we will focus on players who embody hesed, an open-hearted, free-flowing form of loving-kindness. Each day will carry a secondary value, but today is all about the truest expression of hesed.
With the help of my cousin Ben, I pored over the list of eligible players. It was tempting to choose Zion Williamson. He plays the game selflessly, perhaps too selflessly at times. He’s humble, loves his Mom, and wants to share the spotlight and the rock with his teammates. He also pledged to pay the salaries of all the workers at the Pelicans arena after the NBA season was shut down, an incredibly generous act, especially coming from a 19 year old rookie.
From a marketing perspective, he was also the clear #1 choice. Who doesn’t want to watch these highlights over and over.
He is already a completely unique star and one of my favorite players to watch in the NBA. But this project isn’t about picking the player with the best highlights, it’s about choosing who best embodies that day’s combination of sefirot.
When translating hesed to the basketball court, we thought about players who did everything for their team and nobody did everything on the basketball court better than the greatest player to ever wear the #1, Oscar Robertson. Robertson wore the #1 during his final four years with the Milwaukee Bucks, when he helped lead the team to an NBA Championship along with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He was the best player of his generation, a do-everything machine who AVERAGED a triple-double: 30 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists over his first FIVE years in the NBA with the Cincinnati Royals. If you don’t know about the Big O, take twenty minutes out of your day to educate yourself.
However, Robertson earned his strongest consideration for the work he did off the court. In 1965, he became the President of the NBA Players Union, becoming the first African-American president of any sports or entertainment union. He risked his career by leading a class-action suit against the NBA which eventually changed the balance of power in professional sports, and led to the Oscar Robertson rule, the first step toward unrestricted free agency.
Robertson was a leader who sacrificed for the betterment of others. He grew up and played during a period of extreme overt racial discrimination and prejudice in this country. To combat the hatred and racism, he was strict, determined, and guarded, on the surface. While this is very understandable, it is not the fullest embodiment of hesed.
To understand hesed, we look to a person who is humble, kind, and open-hearted. Maurice Cheeks is a Hall of Famer and NBA Champion. As the pass-first point guard for the Philadelphia 76ers, he was a 4x All-star, and 5x All-Defensive player.
Even though he only wore #1 for a couple seasons with the New York Knicks at the end of his career, he is today’s choice for something he did many years after his playing career ended, when he was the coach of the Portland Trailblazers. Before a crucial playoff game, the 13 year-old young woman selected to sing the National Anthem, struggled to get the words out. Cheeks calmly, gently, stepped in and helped her finish.
According to the Oklahoman, it was an act that embodies Mo Cheeks. “No question that was a special moment. But that’s who he is,” said [Scott] Brooks, who’s known Cheeks since 1987. “He’s a guy that has high character.”
It was an open-hearted act of kindness. A selfless act to help another and for that, Mo Cheeks is our choice for day one: hesed sheb’hesed.