Kosher Movies: Rise

I have not found a truly “kosher” movie in a long time. I have seen a number of good films, but they have been peppered with profanity and violence. Rise is a noteworthy exception to this trend. It is about the importance of family, of the unbreakable bond between parents and children, and it is also about the value of sports in the lives of children and young men.

Growing up in Mt. Vernon, New York, my favorite sport was basketball. It was enjoyable to play it with others, but I could always go to local playground where I could shoot hoops by myself. In my teenage years, we played at the JCC on the Spartans, a team that was anything but. However, we had fun playing and Sunday afternoon games were the highlight of the week. Rise tells the inspirational story of the Antatokounmpo family, who stayed together and supported one another in times of adversity and for whom basketball provided the gateway into a life of economic security. The film captures the joy of playing basketball and the joy of participating in sports in general. Moreover, it depicts how being loved and valued as a family member can change the arc of one’s life.

In 1990, Vera and Charles Antetokounmpo move to Greece from Nigeria for a chance at a better life for their family. They work hard to provide for their five children, but are constantly threatened by possible deportation because of the difficulty of obtaining citizenship. Furthermore, he needs a job and cannot get one without a visa, which is impossible to obtain because of his immigrant status.

To financially survive, the family sells souvenirs to tourists in Greece. To pass away some of their free time, two of the brothers, Thanasis and Giannis learn to play basketball on the local outdoor public courts. Very soon, they develop their natural ball handling talents and become very skilled at the game, evoking the notice of a basketball coach who arranges for them to play competitively at a local gym.

Their skill increases exponentially and soon they are intensely recruited by national teams. However, a problem emerges when the basketball scouts discover that the family may illegally be in Greece; and so begins a long, winding road to recruitment by NBA personnel. Through the determined efforts of friends, the road eventually leads to careers in the NBA for the brothers when Giannis is chosen by the Milwaukee Bucks in the fifteenth round of the NBA draft. His selection culminates in residency in America for the entire family. It is a Cinderella story, filled with adversities along the way, which they successfully overcome with the aid of family and friends.

Rise is a sports movie about the joy of sports and the power of sacrifice and family. Father Charles epitomizes this when he reminds his family that they are all in this together. As one of his devoted children remarks: “If one scores, then they all score.”

Moreover, the film expresses the redemptive power of sports, which can teach many worthwhile life lessons. Indeed, participation in athletic games mirrors the challenges of real life. Sports is not only about winning; it is about learning how to deal with loss, with pain, with learning how to overcome adversity and keeping a positive attitude in the face of rejection. When a Nike representative asks Giannis why his story warrants spotlighting by Nike, he answers with sincerity by sharing a touching part of his past. He tells her of the time when he shared gym shoes with his older brother, when he hid from the police, and when he slept on the gym floor. All this did not prevent him from sticking to his dream of playing in the NBA.

Doron Sheffer, a religiously observant collegiate basketball star at the University of Connecticut in the 1990s, perhaps expresses best the redemptive power of sports: “Basketball, just like the Torah, is a teacher of life, imparting joy and inculcating in its practitioners the values of work, play and consistency.” Sheffer now runs youth basketball clinics in Israel, which he terms his version of basketball therapy.

The values of work, play, and consistency are exemplified in the lives of the Antetokounmpo family. They understand how participation in sports resembles the challenges of family life. They also know that loyalty to family values is the bedrock of success in 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
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