Throughout the rich history of the NBA’s Lakers franchise, the team has had the benefit of having many outstanding “big men” play for them. In Minneapolis, their original home city, 6’10” center George Mikan (an alum of the Coach Ray Meyer DePaul Blue Demons) led the team to four NBA championships during the course of a six-year span (1949–1954) and was voted best player of the first half of the 20th century by the Associated Press in 1950. In Los Angeles, the Lakers were led by such outstanding centers as Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille “Shaq” O’Neal.
Shaq (along with fellow superstar Kobe Bryant who died tragically this past January 26th) led the LA Lakers to three consecutive NBA titles (2000–2002). While a Laker, O’Neal forged a friendship with former superstar Mikan. The modern-day Laker “big man” understood the inordinate contributions that his elder made, not only to the Lakers franchise but to all NBA players who played after Mikan retired. While George Mikan was paid meagerly and did not receive a generous pension, O’Neal became a multi-millionaire from his NBA career. He realized that without the sacrifices made by Mikan and other past NBA stars of the early years, the great fame and wealth that O’Neal and most modern-day NBA stars continue to enjoy would have never happened.
On June 1, 2005, George Mikan passed away at age 80 from complications of diabetes and kidney disease. At the time of his death, Mikan and his family were struggling with financial hardship. Realizing this, the protégé Shaq offered to pay for the entire cost of the funeral for his mentor. Crediting Mikan as a player who helped lay the framework for the success of his NBA career, Shaq stated simply, “Without No. 99 [Mikan’s jersey number] there’s no me. . . I know what he was
and I know what he did.”
Paying It Forward: A Spiritual Insight
The Sad Demise of the Circle Maker
Choni HaM’ahgel (Choni the Circle Maker) was one of the many righteous sages who lived during the first century BCE. Choni earned this nickname since he once prayed to the Almighty for rain to fall and boldly stated that he would not move from the area that encircled him, until ample rain fell. Not only were Choni ’s prayers answered, but it rained so hard that he had to pray to the Almighty that
He stop the rains (Taanit 23a).
Even righteous Torah scholars are not perfect and can learn from their mistakes. One time Choni saw an old man planting a carob tree. Knowing that it takes 70 years before a tree bears fruit, Choni asked the old man why he bothered to plant a tree that would not bear fruit during his lifetime. The old man replied that he “bothered” to do so since he appreciated that he was only able to enjoy the
fruit from carob trees because members of earlier generations planted those trees:
Ki heikhi di-shatlei li ahvahatai, shatlei nahmi li-vrahi. Just as my ancestors planted for me, I also plant for my children (ibid).”
Choni then fell into a deep sleep from which he did not awaken for 70 years. When he awoke, not only had he outlived the members of his generation but the next generation as well. Realizing that he had outlived all of his friends and colleagues, he became distressed and passed away.
Unlike the “old man” in the above-cited Talmudic passage, unfortunately, it took 70 years of hibernation – wasted years – for Choni to learn from his mistakes and realize that we must appreciate and show our gratitude for the contributions of members of past generations and be ready to pay it forward to future generations.
Not erring in this manner, Shaq appreciated the sacrifices that George Mikan and members of his NBA generation made for the modern-day players and acted like a “big man” by engaging in an act of off-the-court sportsmanship by paying tribute to the memory of Mikan.
On February 10th we will celebrate the mini-holiday of Tu BiShvat. The Mishna (Rosh HaShana 1:1) refers to this day as Rosh HaShana LaEelan – – The New Year of Trees. Trees teach us many valuable lessons. One such teaching is the importance of paying it forward. While we hope to enjoy the fruits of our labor during our lifetimes, it is important to realize that many of our efforts and dreams will only be truly realized during the lives of our grandchildren and beyond. If not for the sacrifices made by our parents and grandparents, we would not enjoy the comforts of freely, openly practicing Judaism. But for the sacrifices of the many giants in Jewish history, including all those who fought to establish and defend M’dinat Yisrael, we would not have the opportunities we are so fortunate to possess, including having a holy, secure, high-tech homeland that we cherish.
Rabbi James M. (Yaakov Moshe) Gordon, JD, is the author of PRAY BALL 2!! Spiritual Insights Into Sportsmanship which can be purchased at Rosenblum’s World of Judaica, Kesher STAM and Amazon.com. Five or more copies can be purchased at a deep discount at: www.TeamSpiritInstitute.org .