Rabbi James Gordon

By Michael Berns, Special to Chicago Jewish News

It’s been nearly 20 years since Chicago Rabbi James Gordon’s first book, “Pray Ball: The Spiritual Insights of a Jewish Sports Fan” was published.

Now he’s about to release the book’s sequel, “Pray Ball 2: Spiritual Insights into Sportsmanship.”

He said the first book used sports stories to teach Jewish values and that the new book is “more practical in terms of taking a value and expanding upon it.”

One of the critiques of Gordon’s first book, he said, is that there weren’t enough examples of women in sports, and so in his second book, “I tried to focus more on the role of women in sports.”

“Pray Ball 2” paints pictures of leaders in Judaism, and compares their leadership qualities to those of sports figures. For instance, Moses is seen as the prime example of a humble man, and the book looks at sports figures who were both humble and good leaders, and others who were arrogant and poor leaders.

The book discusses Bobby Orr, an NHL star who did not celebrate after scoring a goal, and even turned down his paycheck from the Chicago Blackhawks when he didn’t play up to his own standards. Orr is an example of a humble leader.

Juxtaposed with that is former NFL player Robert ‘Ickey’ Woods, a player known for crossing the line, taunting and celebrating in opponents’ faces. For Woods, it wasn’t enough to win, but he had to gloat about it. According to the Talmud, public embarrassment is akin to murder — when someone gets ‘white in the face,’ it teaches, there is lifelessness in the act.

Should athletes, coaches and others affiliated with sports be considered role models?

“If you look at these players in a realistic way in terms of many of the feats on the field, and in some ways off the field too, they are admirable and they are ones that we could adapt and translate into our own lives to make us better.”

Another common theme in the book, and a parallel Rabbi Gordon draws time and time again, is the notion that a teacher and mentor very well could be a coach or manager of a sports team.

Jewish tradition urges you to “find yourself a teacher,” and Gordon highlights former UCLA Men’s Basketball coach John Wooden as an exemplary teacher, not just when it comes to basketball, but when it comes to having a positive influence in people’s lives.

John Wooden was known for his Pyramid of Success diagram, and the book he wrote explaining it. Lessons like “Little things make big things happen,” “Make each day your masterpiece,” “Seek significant change,” and “Don’t look at the scoreboard” are phrases that not only apply to success on the court, but to success in life.

The book is filled with Chicago-based stories and sports figures. From Michael Jordan to Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, from Ernie Banks to Frank Thomas — many of the case studies and examples stem from larger-than-life Chicago athletes.

Gordon also discusses New York Yankees teammates and rivals Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle, and their infamous chase in 1961 to beat Babe Ruth’s 61 home runs in a single season record. He compares the home run record chase to the ‘rivalry’ of sages Hillel and Shammai.

Gordon breaks down the meaning of gratitude — an important Jewish value — through the famous Lou Gehrig “Luckiest Man Alive” speech to Yankees fans in 1939.

“Pray Ball 2” uses case studies of many different types of sportsmanship relationships to explain stories from the Torah or Talmud. “Sportsmanship by fans,” “Sportsmanship by journalists,” “Sportsmanship towards oneself” and “Sportsmanship involving team executives” are just a few titles of the 30 chapters in the book.

“Pray Ball 2” is available at Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, and on Amazon.

Gordon will be signing books at Rosenblum’s World of Judaica on Sunday, June 3 from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

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