CHERISHED TALES FROM THE YESHIVA HARDWOOD
by: Daniel Gibber
Varsity Basketball Coach, MTA Lions
“It starts again”. Those three simple words tweeted on the Jewish Hoops America site by an anonymous tweeter this past fall, actually sent chills down my spine. Indeed “it”, the dawn of yet a new Yeshiva high school basketball journey was right around the corner and the thrill of another season, and all that “it” entails, was in the air.
The real question though is what is “it” REALLY all about? Why does the fall and the onset of the yeshiva high school sports experience mark such an exciting and worthwhile time? Why do players and coaches spend literally hundreds of hours each season working, sweating, growing and building their teams? What is the real value in investing so much time, effort, sweat and tears just to be able to throw a round leather ball through a round metal ring one more time than the next guy? Better yet, why do yeshiva high schools condone and support it? What is the intrinsic value in spending so many hours mastering the intricacies of the pick and roll at the expense of an extra hour or study or torah learning?
For those of us who have been coaching or involved for many years in Yeshiva high school hoops, the onset of fall tryouts and practices mark the turn of a new season on the calendar much the same as baseball’s spring training, the smell of freshly cut grass, or even the onset of the year’s first major snowstorm. It is also an opportunity to take a step back to “smell the roses” and to look beyond the surface for the real and deeper meaning behind life’s seemingly mundane experiences.
Allow me to take a walk down memory lane to a warm spring night in 1989. It was my sophomore season on the MTA JV and our then powerful team was battling HANC in front of a capacity crowd in the Flatbush gym with the league’s JV championship trophy on the line. We were a cast of largely all star freshman and sophomores (well I was never quite an all-star player, but several of my excellent teammates were) battling a strong HANC team consisting largely of juniors (HANC was a three year school at the time). We had been playing great all night and maintained a lead throughout. This was going to be my first taste of playing for a championship team and I could feel the excitement moments away.
In the blink of an eye, HANC’s sharpshooter, David Rosenthal, went into the proverbial “zone” and reigned in numerous contested 3s in the closing two minutes to seal our fate on the short end of a 75-70 championship game score. To the worry-free 15 and 16 year olds that we then were, the fact that the Berlin wall was months from falling or the fact that the Communist party lost the first “free” election in Russia, were hardly on our radar screens. To us it seemed like our world had come crashing down and everything came to a halt. I still remember the feeling of shocking disappointment and numbness that ensued during those next few weeks as the realization settled in that the championship feeling would avert me yet again.
Fast forward to another warm spring night two years later as literally 2,000 people packed the old Frisch gym (to this day the Frisch Coach and current TABC Coach Bobby Kaplan tells me it was the largest crowd to ever witness a basketball game in that old Frisch gym) to watch our MTA Varsity Lions battle the Frisch Cougars in the semi-finals for the right to face the Flatbush Falcons on the floor of Madison Square Garden on championship night. By then I was a role player who received scarce minutes, but it didn’t matter to me. I was a member of the famed MTA Varsity (in the midst of winning 6 out of 9 Varsity league championships at the time), I was playing for Coach Steve Podias, a coach who had coached at the highest levels of the NY Catholic League (and had future NBA players such as Rod Strickland); I was part of something much larger than myself and I was playing for one last shot at championship glory.
I remember that night at Frisch, some nearly 22 years ago, as if it was yesterday. The moment that best symbolized that night for me came with the game hanging in the balance late in the second half and our coach summing up the courage to put me onto the floor as we were running a full court press. My instruction as the “basket protector” on the back of the press was to stay back and to only gamble for the steal if I was sure I could get to the ball. Sure enough Frisch’s star PG David Feit unleashed a long “baseball” pass; I saw the ball move through the air in slow motion and was positive it was headed for me. I took a few steps in the direction of the slow moving ball, leaped with everything I had and was devastated when the ball eluded my finger tips by seemingly fractions of an inch into the hands of a waiting Cougar for an uncontested lay-up.
The ensuing roar of the Cougar faithful marked my final moment as a high school basketball player (it was a year before the inaugural Saracheck Tournament which often allows our teams a brief second chance at post season glory) as Coach instantly planted me right back onto the bench to witness the final minutes of a painfully close season and career ending loss.
The quiet and inconsolable tear stained sobs, the soothing words our hard nosed coach used in his attempt to console us in our post game locker room, as well as that memorable car ride home in which my father (who never missed my big games despite his lack of appreciation or understanding for anything involving a ball) tried in vain to magically make my hurt disappear, were pivotal and memorable moments that I both cherish and will never forget.
History repeats itself again and again on this cherished journey that is yeshiva high school sports. Fast forward 20 years to a Purim seudah that I attended this past spring, along with various family friends and extended family. I approached one of the teenaged attendees who happened to be a senior at another yeshiva high school in the NY/NJ area to ask him how the sunset of his senior year of high school had been going. The young man I was speaking with appeared to be in less than a jovial mood. Perhaps due in part to his knowledge of the fact that I am now into my bar mitzvah season coaching basketball in the Yeshiva League, he felt comfortable giving me a window into what was on his mind.
The young man proceeded to tell me that he had been a senior leader on his very strong varsity hockey team that had somewhat unexpectedly been knocked out of the Yeshiva League's varsity hockey playoffs just days before, in what turned out to be a very exciting and close game in front of a large crowd. He proceeded to describe for me the ups and downs, the high hopes and dreams that he and his teammates had harbored all season, followed by the crushing and bitter disappointment suddenly brought on by watching the ball cross the goal line, marking their opponents' game winning goal and a sudden exit from the postseason and from his teams' lofty dreams. He recounted the fact that he and his teammates had invested over 100 hours of their lives that year towards the goal of capturing the winner's circle and the championship crown. In light of the crushing and bitter final result that he and his team endured, he was suddenly questioning what it was all worth and why he made such a deep and unwavering investment in emotion and time in order to unsuccessfully chase a fleeting dream?
I must admit that after nearly two decades as a player or coach at the high school level, this had become an all too familiar topic to me. While the fact that the high caliber of players that I have often been fortunate to coach have afforded me the opportunity to partake in something that I never experienced in my playing days, two league championship seasons (one as a Head Coach and a previous one as an Assistant Coach), the stark reality is that I have still been on the receiving end of crashed hoop dreams and premature playoff endings far more than the reverse, both as player and coach.
I proceeded to sit the young man down to relay to him (and subsequently to his parents) my belief that he had just gained a priceless experience, something extremely meaningful and valuable that he would certainly hold onto forever. Being that "misery loves company", I soothed his pain somewhat by reminding him that my very strong MTA Varsity had just followed a successful 13-1, division winning season in the Yeshiva League (21-6 overall), by falling soundly in the playoffs to the red hot SAR Sting (masterfully coached by my friend and our former MTA point guard, Rafi Halpert). I relayed to him my snapshot image of suddenly having found myself in the all too familiar post playoff locker room with the backdrop of 15 high school young men burying their faces in their jerseys and sobbing as they awaited my annual post playoff speech (I think I have that speech down pat by now!).
I then paused to share an observation with my young listener. I relayed to him my strong belief that for the vast majority of yeshiva high school athletes (in fact for the vast majority of high school athletes in general), their experience as members of a yeshiva high school athletic team marks the first time in their lives that they so completely and wholeheartedly throw themselves into and commit themselves so thoroughly to a cause and a common goal.
Naturally, most high school males are at the "macho" stage of their lives in which they avoid risk taking, certainly public risk taking, in order to avoid at all costs the possibility of failing while in the public eye. Yet it has always fascinated me to watch from my close up vantage point how high school athletes so readily check their "macho-ism" at the door and for the first time in their lives are willing to lay it "all" on the line, in the all or nothing pursuit of high achievement. While the reward for the lucky few is overflowing satisfaction, the crushing pain for the overwhelming majority is joined by the unfortunate perception of publicly falling short of the goal.
For many, the yeshiva high school sports journey is also the first time that they truly experience being part of something far bigger than themselves. They are part and parcel of a greater cause where their very skills and personalities must properly mesh with others in order to build something greater than the sum of its parts. For many it is also the first time that they will experience the hurt and tears brought on by failing at something that they care so much about; at the same time a chance to bask in the glory brought on by the big wins and successes. It is the chance to chase dreams, to chase epic moments and the chance to give so much of themselves towards the common goal. It is the chance to cry, the chance to laugh, the chance to fall and the chance to rise yet again to fight another day. Yet all of it, both the tears and the laughs, the joys and the stumbles, are what “it” it is really all about.
Theodore Roosevelt once said:
"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
I would like to suggest that Roosevelt described both the very journey that is the yeshiva high school athletic experience, as well as the very real journey of life itself. I believe firmly in the idea that the ups and downs of the high school sports journey mirrors life itself and I try never to miss an opportunity to use the ups and downs of our seasons as teaching points for our players.
I will never forget the strangely depressing feeling that our 2004 undefeated (in the Yeshiva League, 21-2 overall) championship team felt at our post season awards dinner. While we were thrilled to have succeeded in achieving our ultimate basketball dream, we were depressed at the realization that our journey had come to an end and our players would be dispersing into various directions to take the next steps in their lives. It was then that it became apparent to us that it really is all about the journey and not about the destination. The journey itself is the ultimate reward, the trophy simply there as a testament to the path travelled.
The yeshiva high school sports journey plays an irreplaceable role in the lives of those who take it and it is those who “smell the roses” and recognize and cherish the deeper meaning
of the journey that ultimately feel most fulfilled. In Hollywood, it is always the winner and the victor who is celebrated in the end. Unlike in Hollywood, the journey of real life and the journey of the high school athletic experience is paved with ups and downs, laughs and tears, successes and failures. Every aspect of the journey leaves the traveler with life long lessons and memories to cherish. The journey itself is the reward and I am forever grateful to have the opportunity to travel it.