NBA Star Sabonis Preps for Jewish Conversion
The All-Star plans to follow his wife, who is Jewish, into Judaism at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.
Going into this NBA season, there were two Jewish players on the minds of basketball junkies: Washington Wizards forward and Israeli native, Deni Avdija, and Ryan Turell, the Yeshiva-turned-G League prospect for the Detroit Pistons who could potentially become the first Orthodox Jew to crack an NBA roster. By season’s end, there would be a third: Sacramento Kings big man Domantas Sabonis, whose legendary father, Arvydas, was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2011 following an illustrious career overseas.
Earlier this spring, as the younger Sabonis, one of the league’s most efficient scorers and skilled rebounders, was guiding the Kings to their first playoff berth since 2006, ending the longest postseason drought in NBA history, it was revealed that the three-time All-Star, known league-wide as much for his versatility as his fearlessness, was concurrently in the process of converting to Judaism. The process started a couple years ago, during the throes of the pandemic, when Domantas’ wife, Shashana, a lifelong devout member of the Jewish community, introduced her husband to Rabbi Erez Sherman, of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, the day school of which she was a graduate. Ever since, Sherman, a Conservative rabbi who has contacts throughout the NBA and hosts the podcast, “Rabbi on the Sidelines,” has conducted Zoom sessions with Sabonis to see the still-in-the-works, understandably drawn-out process through.
“It’s not like NBA players can exactly go to 18 weekly classes with all the crazy time changes in the NBA schedule,” Rabbi Erez Sherman noted when speaking to the Atlanta Jewish Times. “I’ll get a call, ‘hey, it’s an off-day—can we learn some Torah?’”
On the evening of Jan. 13, following his team’s 25-point win over the Houston Rockets in which he posted a triple-double, Sabonis, anticipating the upcoming off-day, did indeed text Sherman about setting up his next tutorial.
“When you have a gigantic platform in sports that’s all-consuming, obviously, to take on this spiritual transformation—it’s a big commitment,” added Sherman, who has yet to meet Sabonis in person, but anticipates doing so in the near future. “When you’re just interviewed by Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal and you go off the air and then you’re like, ‘let me text the rabbi to learn about Judaism,’ that shows commitment. There are people in our synagogues, we can’t even get them in the door more than once a year. Honestly, he’s a role model on and off the court, a serious learner who internalizes knowledge.”
When you’re just interviewed by Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal and you go off the air and then you’re like, ‘let me text the rabbi to learn about Judaism,’ that shows commitment. There are people in our synagogues, we can’t even get them in the door more than once a year. Honestly, he’s a role model on and off the court, a serious learner who internalizes knowledge.
While pacing the NBA in rebounds (12.3 per game) and averaging a healthy 19.1 points per contest in his second season with Sacramento, Sabonis wholeheartedly embraced the Judaic traditions and the Jewish community of his new hometown. He has forged a close bond with Rabbi Mendy Cohen of Chabad of Sacramento, who recited the Megillah for him on Purim following the Kings game that evening.
Likewise, Sabonis attended Chabad of Sacramento’s Purim party, and, in December, he sponsored a Sufganiyot giveaway at a Kings home game.
And although the travel demands intrinsic to being an NBA player often infringe upon Shabbat customs, the young couple, who were married by a Reform rabbi in August 2021 and have a year-old son named Tiger, make it a point to do festive Friday night dinners whenever possible as well as Passover seders.
While Sabonis’ conversion to Judaism has been a fairly seamless process, the same can’t be said for his team’s long-awaited re-entry to the NBA playoffs. As has been the case for several teams this spring, the Kings’ postseason showing didn’t live up to the lofty expectations set forth in the regular season, one in which they finished with their best record (48-34) since George W. Bush was in office. After jumping out to a 2-0 lead against the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs, Sabonis, who previously played for the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers, and the rest of the upstart Kings were eliminated after dropping four of the series’ final five games.
For many basketball fans, the lasting memory of the seven-game quarterfinals was a frightening one as Sabonis, who ended up averaging 16.4 points and 11 rebounds per game in the series, played with a thumb in need of surgical repair. In the fourth quarter of Game 2 at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Center, Sabonis, upon slipping and falling under his own basket, grabbed at Golden State forward Draymond Green’s right leg; after eluding his opponent’s grasp, Green stomped on the chest of Sabonis, who stayed down on the court for a few minutes before undergoing X-rays on his sternum that came back negative. (Sabonis was called for a technical foul for yanking Green’s leg and Green was given a flagrant-2 foul that prompted an automatic ejection and, ultimately, a Game 3 suspension.)
While it was an ugly incident, it didn’t escalate into a full-fledged on-court fracas and the bad blood didn’t spill over to the series’ later games. And as for Sabonis personally, he made Rabbi Sherman, among many others, proud with his comments on the TNT postgame interview that evening: “We’re both fighting for the rebound. We fell on each other. Stuff happens. It’s basketball. We’ve got to move on to the next play.”
Now, with the summer off-season looming, Domantas is moving on to his next endeavor – the completion of his Judaic conversion.
“Even as a basketball player, he [Domantas] is going to be living his life with that serious message that he’s learning,” Sherman remarked about the 26-year-old Lithuanian-American, who, following his conversion, could stand as one of the greatest Jewish basketball players of all-time, right up there with the likes of Dolph Schayes. “He’s just going to live his life according to the morals and values that he already had.”
- David Ostrowsky
- Washington Wizards
- Deni Avdija
- Ryan Turell
- Detroit Pistons
- Sacramento Kings
- Domantas Sabonis
- Basketball Hall of Fame
- Rabbi Erez Sherman
- Sinai Temple
- Houston Rockets
- charles Barkley
- Shaquille O’Neal
- Rabbi Mendy Cohen
- Chabad of Sacramento
- George W. Bush
- Golden State Warriors
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Indiana Pacers