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Kosher Movies: Hustle

Many years ago, I had a wonderful, charismatic teacher on my faculty in Atlanta. He was a young rabbi eager to make his mark in Jewish education. On one particular day, he made a teaching mistake, as do all beginning teachers. Upset at the behavior of one of his students, he referred to him in class as an “idiot.”

Immediately, he regretted losing his cool. Thankfully, he apologized to the student and worked hard to repair their relationship, which over time was rebuilt.

Losing one’s cool is a central theme in the profanity-laden basketball movie, Hustle, which depicts the efforts of a new recruit to endure the trash talk of other players and stay focused on playing his best and winning the game.

Stanley Sugerman is a basketball scout for the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA. His job is to search and find future stars, and he has been doing this for many years. His heavy schedule of travel takes a toll on his family, in particular his wife Teresa and daughter Alex.

Rex Merrick, owner of the 76ers, likes Stanley, but his son Vince does not. The friction between Stanley and Vince intensifies when Rex dies after making Stanley an assistant coach, a position long hoped for by Stanley. However, Vince sees Stanley as a scout, not a coach; and in spite of his new title, Vince sends Stanley on the road again searching for the next basketball star.

Serendipitously, while in Spain, Stanley discovers a potential superstar playing in a local pick-up game. His name is Bo Cruz. He was invited to play in the United States as a teenager, but he decided to stay in Spain when his girlfriend became pregnant with his daughter Lucia. Then Bo became a construction worker and played pick-up games to earn extra money.

Stanley arranges for Bo to work out with members of the Spanish national team. After an impressive debut performance, Stanley encourages the 76ers to sign him. Vince, however, rejects Stanley’s proposal, whereupon Stanley decides to bring Bo to America at his own expense.

Bo plays well but has trouble with his game when his opponents talk trash to him. At one critical juncture, he loses his composure and punches another player, placing his entire basketball future in jeopardy. To be a basketball great requires total focus and the ability to stay calm even when rattled. From that moment, Stanley’s efforts with Bo take on additional importance, for Stanley not only has to help Bo prepare physically for the NBA, but also to rehabilitate his spirit as well.

Jewish wisdom has much to say about revealing one’s strength through self-control, not by exercising one’s physical strength alone. In a classic of Jewish wisdom literature, Ethics of the Fathers, the rabbis teach us: “Who is strong? One who can control his impulses”(Avot 4:1).

Rabbi Berel Wein writes: “Self-control, moral probity, modesty of behavior and personality are the components of true Jewish strength. We are a strong people, perhaps ultimately the strongest of all peoples, because of our inner strength. Bilaam, a pagan prophet, no friend of ours, nevertheless compared us to a lion. Rome thought of the Jews as being their strongest enemy and most unconquerable foe. Even the anti-Semites, who unfortunately currently abound, emphasize our attribute of strength. This leads then to their belief in the real plausibility of their cockeyed conspiracy theories about how the Jews run the world. But they misread our strength. Our strength lies in our faith and our loyalty to God and His Torah and to the traditions of Israel that have nurtured us for thousands of years.”

Stanley Sugerman teaches Bo Cruz a valuable life lesson, namely, that strength is calibrated not in muscle power, but in one’s ability to control one’s feelings, one’s response to provocations. The more you are in control of your emotions, the stronger you are in the arena of life.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at rabbihjco@msn.com.
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