| By: Mark Wiesel
When Flatbush defeated SAR for the 2010-2011 Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Basketball League championship I assume there were very few people there that realized this was the conclusion of the 61st season of the MYHSBL and Flatbush’s 8th championship. Unfortunately, not much has been written about the history of the league and I’m hoping that starting with this article that will change.
As a former player, coach and the son of a former player, I have always been interested in the history of the league. Over the years there have been some great, often heated, discussions about former great players and teams on this website so I know that there are a lot of us out there who are interested in this. When Yisrael Feld (whom I had the pleasure of coaching as a freshman on the MTA JV) finished his Varsity career with 1,500 points I received an e-mail from his coach Dan Gibber. In his e-mail Dan speculated that Yisrael was probably the leading scorer in MTA history, but how could we really know?
During MTA’s recent history, it had been very rare for a player to play 3 years of Varsity. During his 3 years Yisrael averaged over 20 points a game in around 75 games. My father, Abe Wiesel, played for MTA in the 1950’s and has often told me about the great players from back then. At that time, before the formation of the JV league in 1960, there were many players, my father included, who played 3 or 4 years of Varsity.
I started to search the internet for any information I could find and I found a website, archive.org. On this site YU has downloaded every MTA and BTA (as well as many Central, Stern and YU up to 1988) yearbooks from 1927-70. Many of these yearbooks, especially the MTA ones, had extensive articles about their basketball teams, including statistics and records, etc. I started reading these yearbooks and realized that from these books you could really start to put together a real history of the league. Here are some of the facts I learned:
• MTA started their basketball team in 1940 and while the yeshivas did play each other, a formal league was not formed until 1951. The original 6 teams were: MTA, BTA, RJJ, Ramaz, Chaim Berlin and Mesivta Torah Vodaas. MTA beat BTA for the championship 53-45 and won the first 7 championships until RJJ won their only 2 back to back in 1958 and 59.
• From their first 33 years until 1973 (expect for the period of 1941-45 when he was in the US Navy during WWII) MTA was coached by one man, the legendary Hy Wettstein. Coach Wettstein was one of the major driving forces in forming the Yeshiva League. As coach, he led MTA to 10 Yeshiva League Championships and a lifetime record of 413-170. He passed away on December 6, 2004 at the age of 92.
• In the 1952 yearbook our own Editor Emeritus of the Jump Shot, Rabbi Israel Poleyeff is thanked as the Assistant Coach for leading the team to 2 victories while Coach Wettstein was ill.
• In 1953 Flatbush and HILI joined.
• On 3/25/53 MTA defeated BTA for their 3rd championship in a row in the first yeshiva game played at Madison Square Garden before a Knick-Boston game in front of 10,000 people.
• The 1954 BTA team was led by future YU star and Camp Seneca Lake owner Irv Bader and counted famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz as a member.
• The 1954 MTA team (the 1st of 4 championship teams my father was on) was led by the legendary Norm Palefski. They went 19-1 losing only to prep rival Columbia Grammar 70-69. Palefski averaged 26.5 a game with a high of 51 against Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, who joined the league that year and finished his varsity career with 729 points. He was named 1st team All-Prep by the New York Post and is still considered by many to be the best MTA player ever. He went on to play in 1954-55 season for YU and was then tragically killed in a car accident in the summer of 1955. After his death the High School championship trophy was named in his honor (and unless somebody has changed it I guess it still is).
• Besides my father, another freshman on the 1954 team was Ralph Lipshitz who left the school the next year and later changed his name to Ralph Lauren.
• In 1958 we finally see a team break the MTA championship streak with RJJ, led by Norm Rocheach, winning their first of back to back championships. These will be the only two championships RJJ will win while a member of the Yeshiva League.
• The next big MTA star after Palefski was Hank Resnick who played from 1957-59. Resnick averaged over 20 points a game as a senior in 1959, but due to a severely sprained ankle he was limited to 9 games. He was still voted “Best Prep School Ballplayer” by the Met Sportswriters Association, the New York Post and the Journal American. He finished his career as MTA’s leading scorer with 808 points.
• In 1960 the league was back down to 6 teams with Chaim Berlin, MTJ and MTV dropping out. BTA started their season with an upset win in an exhibition game over MTA at Madison Square Garden. It is the first time MTA has lost on the Garden floor. However, MTA is able to regroup and reclaimed their title by defeating RJJ. During this year the JV league is formally formed.
• In 1961 we see a familiar name mentioned for the first time, long time YU coach Johnny Hapert (and father of current SAR coach, Rafi). As a junior Johnny leads MTA in scoring and to a 10-0 regular season. However, their season ends in heartbreak with a loss, for the first time in history, to HILI. BTA has a disappointing regular season finishing with a 4-6 record. They then shocked the league by beating Flatbush and HILI to capture their first championship at MSG. Their leading scorer was Norm Ringel (who became a summer camp legend and YU’s first baseball coach) and Laurie Garber (former Supersol owner and father of my future HAFTR teammate Izzy Garber) was the MVP of the championship game.
• In 1962 Flatbush beats MTA 53-30 for their first of 8 championships. JEC is mentioned for the first time but does not formally join the league until 1963.
• BTA beats MTA at MSG 52-49 for the 1963 championship their second in 3 years, but this is the last championship they will win before merging with MTA in the early 1980’s.
• In 1964 we see the last of the original teams still in the league, the Ramaz Rams, finally win their first championship. Amazingly, after breaking a 13 year drought they then go on another 40 seasons without winning their next championship in 2005.
• In 1965 we see MTA referred to as the Lions for the first time. Before then they were known as the Mini-Mites and YU was the Mighty-Mites. We also see the emergence of the next great MTA player, sophomore Stu Poloner. Even with Poloner, MTA sufferers through their worst season ever by failing to win any league games. HILI, led by their legendary coach, Bill Weiner, beats BTA 56-48 for the first of HILI’s 5 championships. Coach Weiner started at HILI in 1959 and remained as head coach until 1983, through HILI’s merger with Hillel in 1978 creating HAFTR. On a personal note, I had the honor and privilege to play for Mr. Weiner during his last 2 seasons as a head coach (he came out of retirement in 1995 to be the assistant coach at Rambam as his grandson Dov led them to their only championship). I know there are many of us who played for him still out there coaching and teaching the many lessons he taught us. Coach Weiner finished with a 345-155 record and passed away on Yom Kippur in 2004 (thank you to Coach Avrum Stein who wrote a great article for jewishhoopsamerica.com about Mr. Weiner for some of the information).
• After a 5 year absence we see the reemergence of MTA in 1966. After going 0-10 the pervious season the Lions roared back with a 9-1 regular season (only losing to HILI) and then beating HILI 54-49 in OT for the championship. Junior Stu Poloner led MTA averaging 20.11 points a game and Johnny Hapert joined the staff as coach Wettstein’s assistant.
• 1967 was a record breaking season for MTA’s Stu Poloner. First and foremost he led them to back to back championships by once again defeating HILI 43-41 at MSG. Poloner averaged 25.3 points per game and set numerous MTA records. He was named 1st team “All City Prep” and finished his career as MTA’s All Time Career scoring leader with 1105 career points. MTA sets a team scoring record with 118 points against Rogosin, led by Poloner’s 50. In addition, during his time at MTA he also leads the USA Pan Am Maccabiah team to gold in Brazil scoring 20 points in the gold medal game.
• The 60’s close and the 70’s open with an incredible string of four consecutive years, from 1967-70, that we see MTA battle HILI for the championship. HILI wins in 1968 and ‘69 and MTA wins in 1967 and ‘70.
• After seeing MTA dominate the first 20 years of the league with 10 championships, we only see them win 1 championship in the next 13 seasons. Over the next 20 years we really see the emergence of New Jersey as a power with JEC, Frisch and Rogosin winning a combined 7 championships and Flatbush with 5. The early 70’s are dominated by JEC and Rogosin, who win 4 championships between them from 71-75. The JEC teams of 1971 and 72 are led by perhaps the greatest scorer the Yeshiva League has ever seen, Pete Kessel. Kessel finishes his career with an incredible total of 2,003 points, which at the time is the most points ever scored in a career in Union County New Jersey (please see the archives of jewishhoopsamerica for a great article written by Pete recapping their historic season).
• Flatbush wins 3 consecutive championships from 1980-82 led by big man Freddie Levine.
• MTA once again bounces back from their drought by winning 5 championships over 7 seasons from 1984-90. The 1984 team, whom my HAFTR team lost to in the playoffs, were a dominate team led by Benji Reichel, Eli Mayerhoff and future YU star Yudi Teichman. In 1986 and ‘87 Eric Davis (helped a little by my brother in law Ranon Mann) led MTA to their first back to back championships since 1966 and ’67. During his 4 years at MTA Davis leads them to 4 championships (2 JV and 2 varsity).
• I must take a few lines to discuss the 1990 MTA championship team, since I had the distinction of being the assistant coach to my childhood friend (and HAFTR legend) Rabbi Gary Beitler that season. Going into the season we knew we had a strong team but there were a number of question marks. We had a real star in big man Daniel Aaron, but arguably our second best player Ezra (now Rabbi) Weiner (another one of Mr. Weiner of HILI and HAFTR’s grandsons) was injured and never really was able to play at full strength all year. We also had some great role players but we felt we really needed somebody to tie all the pieces together. That’s when Rabbi Beitler had the bright idea to bring a smooth ball handling sophomore point guard Hillel Olshen up from the JV and immediately inserting him as the starting point guard. At that time MTA very rarely had sophomores move up to the varsity. To be honest I didn’t immediately support the decision, partially because I didn’t know how some of the seniors whom he was replacing were going to react and partially because I was coaching the JV and knew he was going to be a big part of our team (on a side note, we ended up losing the JV championship that year to HANC and I do believe that if Hillel had stayed on JV we probably would have won. That same JV team, led by Hillel as a senior, did win the championship in 1992. Current MTA coach Dan Gibber was also a member of that team). However Rabbi Beitler knew best and everything blended together by seasons end. We beat Westchester for the championship at MSG and coaching there was truly one of the highlights of my career (I also played there as a junior against JEC).
• Based upon the information I have been able to uncover concerning MTA through 1970 and through discussions with people who are familiar with them over the past 40 years I feel very confident in stating that Yisrael Feld is the leading scorer in 70 year history of MTA basketball. Quite an accomplishment based upon their history.
The last 20 years has really shown the tremendous growth and expansion of the league with 9 different schools winning championships and only Frisch (1995 and ‘96 led by current TABC coach Bobby Kaplan) and HAFTR (2001 and 2002) wining back to back. What started with only 6 teams over 60 years ago has now developed into a league of 22 varsity teams, 23 JV teams not to mention the 19 girls varsity and 12 JV teams.
As I stated in the beginning of this article, this is by no means a definitive history of the Yeshiva League. Since I only had access to the MTA and BTA information of the 50’s and 60’s then obviously the majority of the information I wrote about was about them. That’s not to diminish the accomplishments of such other longtime member schools such as Ramaz, RJJ, JEC and Flatbush. I know the information is out there and I hope this article starts the ball rolling in furthering this discussion.