Discussing religion in the context of sports has always been a sensitive and touchy subject.

When Cassius Clay became the legendary Muhammad Ali, his conversion to Islam wasn’t exactly welcomed by the public. When Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he admitted to similar troubles (albeit to a much lesser extent). In 1996, Denver Nuggets guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf caused a stir when he refused to stand during the national anthem, citing his religions beliefs. Even Tim Tebow has caught his share of flak for his conservative Christian values.

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Generally religion is something athletes don’t talk about, which is why it was so surprising when NBA star and newly minted New York Knick Amar’e Stoudemire announced recently that he was Jewish and visited Israel to learn more about his roots. Stoudemire said he was told by his mother that there may be Jewish roots in her lineage, and Stoudemire wanted to travel to Israel to learn more about the history and culture of the religion.

His trip has been met with questions, confusion, and even mocking from fans. Most found the trip odd (including myself) and wondered what prompted Stoudemire to make this conversion now.

While in Israel, Stoudemire gave an interview to Israeli television#, and explained his reasoning for the trip, saying “I’m a history guy. I love history, I love studying. I wanted to try to find my original culture. I’m very spiritual. This trip helped me a lot with finding the original culture.”

I applaud Stoudemire for having the curiosity and drive to learn more about a religion he previously knew nothing about. If Stoudemire really is Jewish (which is still up for debate), I think it’s refreshing that he has embraced the religion so passionately.

We live in a society now where we get all of the emotion we want from our athletes in 140-count messages on Twitter. We rather know what night club they partied in on Friday night, than what church they prayed in on Sunday morning. We crave to know as much as we can about the athletes we follow…as long as it’s the juicy and salacious stuff.

When Stoudemire announced this trip, the news that he might be Jewish was certainly a little surprising, but what was more shocking is that an athlete was willing to make this trip, and make it known to the public, that he would be spending part of his summer learning about a culture he had no previous affiliation to.

Stoudemire is known mostly for his thunderous dunks, well-polished offensive game, and his name coming up in trade rumors every season. What many may not know is that Stoudemire is also a pretty articulate and classy guy. After leaving the Phoenix Suns for the Knicks this summer, he took out a full page ad in The Arizona Republic, thanking the Phoenix fans for supporting him while he played there.

Now that Stoudemire is in New York, the melting pot of the US, perhaps the city is rubbing off on him for the better. It’s doubtful he came to New York strictly for the culture (there’s roughly 100 million other reasons he came), but it’s nice to see him take full advantage of the opportunity he’s been given.

When asked by the Israeli television station if he was really, in fact, Jewish, Stoudemire responded: “I think through history, we all are (Jewish). It’s a beautiful culture. It’s the original culture. From a spirituality standpoint, this is where it all started. I feel blessed to come to this understanding at a young age.”

And we as NBA fans should feel blessed that there are athletes like Stoudemire that realize there’s more to life than just playing basketball.