Sports have sometimes given religious minorities a venue for both displaying their faith and diminishing the majority's suspicions. Consider pugilist Benny Leonard, who from 1917 to 1925 held the lightweight championship. The New Yorker was more than just an athlete. Writing in 1980, novelist Budd Schulberg recalled watching the boxer in his prime, climbing into the ring with the Star of David on his trunks, giving Jews hopes of “sweet revenge for all the bloody noses, split lips, and mocking laughter at pale little Jewish boys." Over time, the "mocking laughter" quieted. Journalist Arthur Brisbane speculated that Leonard did “more to conquer anti-Semitism than a thousand textbooks.” Leonard was not the only Jewish boxer battling both opponents and bigotry. From 1901 to 1938, there were 27 Jewish world champions.
Jews also muscled into the mainstream on the baseball diamond. During the 1930s and 1940s, “Hammerin’” Hank Greenberg amassed 331 home runs and 1276 RBIs, while maintaining a .313 lifetime batting average. Greenberg played his best years in Detroit, where folks like Father Charles Coughlin and Henry Ford didn't make life easy for Jews. Yet, Greenburg’s face appeared on the cover of the Wheaties box, an “all-American” cereal if there ever was one.
As for Jewish basketball players, see David Vyorst's new documentary, First Basket. He explains in a recent NPR interview:
[At] the turn of the 20th century, most of the Jewish people who came into the country moved into the lowery side of Manhattan. So people lived within ethnic communities, largely. And many of the teams grew out of those communities. Whereas sports is a way where you want to fit in with the culture writ large, basketball - the way that these kids played basketball, they were able to play basketball, kind of become American, but on their own terms.