By Jonathan Fernandez
Former NBA and Illini basketball player Meyers Leonard visited his alma mater Jan. 17 for what was supposed to be a 30-minute conversation with the student Jewish community this winter.
Instead, the conversation lasted for about two hours, hosted by Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel, the director of the Chabad Jewish Center at the University of Illinois.
Leonard was suspended indefinitely and then cut by the last two teams he played for in the NBA, the Miami Heat and the Oklahoma City Thunder, for using an antisemitic slur during a videogame livestream on Twitch in March.
Since then, he has spent the last year trying to atone for his mistake, speaking to different rabbis throughout the country and trying to learn more about the Jewish community.
“Jewish people can talk to Jewish people all they want about antisemitism,” Leonard told the Chicago Tribune. “How do we fight it? What do we say and what do we do? What about a guy who’s been in the league nine years, clearly is an upstanding individual (but) makes a silly mistake, how about him as a guy who can say, ‘Whoa! We all need to be more aware here.’”
In a Q&A Interview, Tiechtel discussed the lengthy conversation
with students and what he learned about Leonard.
Jonathan Fernandez: You have the unique perspective of having seen Leonard star for the University of Illinois. What were your initial thoughts and reaction when the news was first coming out that he made an antisemitic slur on Twitch?
Rabbi Dovid Tiechtel: I think the comments were wrong. Did he know what he said was a bad thing? I don’t know. He grew up in a small town, and unfortunately a lot of hateful words and terms come from people not knowing better. But saying it with 65,000 followers could’ve made others think it was the right thing to do. So obviously it was a major not good thing that he did. But he immediately owned up to it, which is a very strong teaching. Initially when it happened a lot of people were very upset. A lot of people contacted me (saying) how upset they were. But, on the flip side, afterwards people saw how authentic he was. For a year he spent time trying to understand the Jewish community, and that made a very big impact because a lot of it he did away from the camera. It made me realize if you’re upset at somebody, you have a choice. Do you want to be upset, or do you want to do something about it? And the fact that a lot of people were upset when he was coming to the University of Illinois campus, I said let’s reach out. Let’s invite him and have a conversation. And it turned out to be very positive because the reality is he took the situation and he turned it around into a positive experience.
JF: You mentioned contacting him. Can you tell me more about how this event got set up?
RDT: I was reached out to by a lot of people asking me what I felt about it. So I said instead of being upset, let’s get straight in touch with him. He had a relationship with my colleague at Chabad, which is an international organization all over the world. After the incident happened last year, the Chabad rabbi in South Florida, he right away worked with Leonard to help him understand what was wrong. So I was speaking to a good friend of mine, and about 10 minutes later Meyers was on the phone with me saying that he would love to come out while he was in town. It was supposed to be a 30-minute situation, and it ended up being almost two hours.
JF: What topics were broached during that two-hour conversation?
RDT: First he apologized for what he did. He spoke about what he learned from what he did.
He wanted to hear from students, their experiences. He spoke about his personal mental health, how he’s dealing with it, spoke about how people don’t realize what happened in the aftermath. He spoke a little bit about that as well. And a lot of students brought up things that bothered them. It was a really, really great and productive conversation.
JF: Do you feel like you learned anything about Leonard during that visit?
RDT: First thing you see is the human side of the person. He’s a human being who went through his own struggles. It’s not easy on him either. He seemed very, very clear what it was, and we see it wasn’t an easy situation. You also see the authenticity of feeling really, really bad about what happened. You see him really wanting to learn. I believe it’s a journey. He really wanted to learn and wanted to grow.
JF: Did you have any doubts about his motives in wanting to come? I read somewhere that there were students who had doubts.
RDT: People are telling me, “Oh, it’s probably a paid tour to clean up his act.” It’s actually not. Before I met him I didn’t know him, but I saw how he right away jumped at the opportunity to really want to come out and meet the people. He wasn’t saying, “Oh, people are criticizing me, let me just avoid them.” He told me, “I want to get tough questions, I want to take this head on.” But there were others that were skeptical, and I was like, “Buddy, give him a chance.” And we gave him
a chance, and you know something? He showed very clearly what happened and why he feels very bad about it.
JF: So by the end of the conversation, do you think the students had changed their minds about that?
RDT: Very much so. Many people told me that they felt clearly that their perception before and their perception after totally changed.
JF: After that incident, no other NBA teams were really looking at bringing Leonard on. Do you think he should be given another shot to get back in the league?
RDT: Absolutely. He said that he actually has teams calling him, but that physically he isn’t there yet. But I believe that he’s an example. People do stupid things. If you can admit this, how many people have done this and gotten away with it and are still playing in the NBA? What he did was very bad, but he apologized and he’s owning up to it through actions.
Jonathan Fernandez is a graduate student specializing in sports media at Northwestern Medill. You can follow him on Twitter at @JFERN31.