MILWAUKEE — During the two years that have passed since he made an antisemitic comment while playing a video game, Meyers Leonard often wondered if he’d ever suit up for an NBA team again.
The 7-footer’s gratitude was evident Wednesday after signing a 10-day contract with the Milwaukee Bucks. Leonard said it felt “almost euphoric” to practice for the first time with his new team.
“To take a chance on me like this, it takes a lot of courage,” Leonard said.
Leonard hasn’t appeared in an NBA game since January 2021, when he injured his shoulder while playing for the Miami Heat. Two months later, he used a slur while playing a video game online that others watched on a livestream.
The Heat told him to stay away indefinitely and NBA Commissioner Adam Silver fined him $50,000. Miami eventually traded him to the Oklahoma City Thunder, who released him shortly afterward.
Leonard was trying to make amends for his mistake while also recovering from surgeries to his shoulder and ankle, the second of which resulted in what he called “a bit of a nerve issue.” Leonard pondered walking away from the game.
“But that would have been the coward’s way out, to run away and say I’ve made enough money, I want to go start my life elsewhere,” Leonard said. “I felt like I owed it to anyone who’s ever believed in me, my family, my son, to make this right.”
During his time away from the NBA, Leonard devoted himself to reaching out to the Jewish community.
Shortly after the video came out showing him making a slur, Leonard issued a statement saying he didn’t know the meaning of the word he’d said but adding that “my ignorance about its history and how offensive it is to the Jewish community is absolutely not an excuse and I was just wrong.”
Leonard has since spoken and worked with several Jewish groups, conducted a number of basketball camps for Jewish children and apologized numerous times for what he said and his ignorance about what the term meant.
He briefly choked up while speaking to reporters Wednesday about everything that had transpired in his life over the last two years and how he had grown from it.
“I always try to look at life glass half full, but obviously there were times when it was very, very, very dark,” Leonard said.
The former Illinois star reached out to the Jewish communities in South Florida, at his alma mater and in Los Angeles, where he was recovering from his injuries. Leonard says he intends to do the same in Milwaukee.
“It means something to me,” Leonard said. “It does. It’s part of me. I won’t stop. I can’t stop.”
Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer vouched for Leonard’s character by pointing out all the positive steps Leonard had taken since the March 2021 incident.
“Meyers has been really, really diligent and conscientious about engaging with the Jewish community, acknowledging that there’s no place for antisemitism or antisemitic slurs or any type of hate speech,” Budenholzer said. “The genuineness with how he’s talked to us about it, he’s talked publicly. We feel like he’s a person of high character that has owned and tried to make this an educational opportunity for himself and others.”
Leonard, who turns 31 on Feb. 27, has career averages of 5.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 16 minutes in 447 games with the Portland Trail Blazers and Heat.
His arrival in Milwaukee could help the Bucks deal with their lack of frontcourt depth as two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and Bobby Portis recover from injuries.
Antetokounmpo sprained his right wrist last week at Chicago and went to New York on Monday to have it examined. Budenholzer said Wednesday
“He’s always a fast healer,” Budenholzer said. “He’s always a guy that’s quick to come back. So we’ll just see how he does as we take each day.”
Portis appears on the verge of returning from a sprained medial collateral ligament that has kept him out for the last month.
The Bucks will put a 12-game winning streak at stake Friday when they return from the All-Star break to host the Miami Heat.