The JCC may well be the host with the most — points that is. In the 1st Annual Tri-State Basketball Tournament and Shabbaton (a program organized by Hillel Academy of Pittsburgh and the Jewish Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh), the JCC boys’ basketball team emerged victorious after defeating the Fuchs Mizrachi Mayhem, 63-55.
The championship game and multiday tournament featured all of the competitiveness, camaraderie and cliches one could ever want from a basketball viewing experience.
Leading up to the stellar finale were days of programming and games dedicated to developing unity and fraternity among players. Beginning Friday, Feb. 12, shortly before Shabbat, teams from New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania descended upon Squirrel Hill. With the alacrity of Isiah Thomas and the size of Spud Webb, traveling players hustled from Hillel Academy (where they initially arrived) to host families throughout the neighborhood, only to return to Hillel Academy for a Shabbat program.
“We had Friday night dinner together, tish together, had a nice little oneg,” said Mark Pattis, coach of the JCC’s boys’ basketball team.
The Friday night program, which included davening, dinner, a learning session and oneg, welcomed teenage Jewish basketball players from all walks of religious life.
“It was really a nice feeling to bring the kids together,” said Brian Schreiber, JCC’s president and CEO.
“It was a different kind of experience and opportunity for kids to learn from each other in a nonjudgmental way.”
Highlighting the evening was a 45-minute learning session with Rabbi Sam Weinberg, Hillel Academy’s principal, on life lessons learned through basketball. Weinberg recapped his experiences playing high school basketball at the JCC. He spoke about attaining traits of humility and selflessness, yet knowing when to become a leader.
“These are lessons I learned growing up in Pittsburgh, going to school at Hillel Academy and playing basketball at the JCC,” he said. “The lessons I learned at school and on the court really complemented themselves well.”
On Saturday, players from the JCC of Greater Pittsburgh and Harrisburg JCC volunteered at the Harry B. Davis basketball clinic through refereeing games, coaching games and scorekeeping for children grades three through eight.
Players from Hillel Academy, Fuchs Mizrachi, Columbus Torah Academy and Yeshiva of Flatbush participated in team building activities at Hillel Academy and enjoyed a Shalosh Seudos (Shabbat afternoon) program with Judge Dan Butler.
On Saturday evening all of the players returned to the JCC for basketball games and a pizza party.
“It was really fun meeting kids from other cities,” said Ezra Kraut, a forward on Hillel Academy’s team.
“It’s been really cool for them to meet people from different cities that have something in common [like] basketball and Judaism,” said Pattis.
Sunday morning the tournament continued. Games were played throughout the day except during an afternoon break, where tournament participants went by bus to watch the Duquesne Dukes men’s team take on
the University of Massachusetts Minutemen.
Sunday night and Monday morning basketball games continued.
“It’s definitely competitive basketball. Almost every game teams are in it,” said Danny Shaw, Hillel Academy’s director of student life and development coordinator.
“It’s an intense and athletic tournament atmosphere. Teams want to win. They’ve traveled a far way,” said Pattis.
And though tournament teams had ventured from as far away as Brooklyn and Harrisburg, the two competitors in Monday’s championship hailed from nearby locales.
Facing off in the championship game were the Mizrachi Mayhem (from Cleveland), and the JCC (from Squirrel Hill).
Although the two teams had battled earlier in the tournament, Monday’s championship game presented a different roster for the JCC.
A number of kids from the JCC could not participate due to the Pittsburgh Public Schools holding classes on Presidents Day, explained Schreiber.
Lacking a full squad seemed to haunt the JCC as they fell behind early. At the end of the first quarter, following a last-minute three-pointer from Mizrachi guard Albert Waxman, the Mayhem led 18-10.
Despite their early struggles the JCC bounced back. In the second quarter hot-handed Andrew Shorr scored 10 points, including two free throws with .2 seconds remaining in the half. The critical error, which brought Shorr (one of nine guards on the JCC roster), to the line pushed JCC’s lead to 29-23 going into halftime.
“They didn’t do anything we didn’t expect them to,” said Osborne Gardner, Mizrachi’s coach. “We’re just not hitting shots. The lid will come off in the 2nd. We’ll be all right.”
Unfortunately for Mizrachi, all right was not enough. Although Ilan Senders, a guard and forward for Mizrachi, terrorized the post, havoc struck the Mayhem. Entering the fourth quarter, the JCC led 43-36.
Though Waxman and Senders showed spurts of brilliance, the Mayhem could not find a rhythm. Such was noticed by keen basketball observer Mark Davidson. While seated in the stands, Davidson channeled his inner Walt Frazier and admitted, “As a fan of basketball, there hasn’t been enough swishing and dishing.”
While the Mayhem struggled, the JCC strove. Shorr added eight more second-half points for the JCC and finished with 18. Eli Sacks, (another of the JCC’s nine guards), led all scorers with 22. When the clock expired, the JCC players celebrated its 63-55 victory. But as opposed to focusing upon their trophy, the players extolled a less sensational part of the tournament.
“It was great, [I] got to meet a lot of kids from out of town. It was nice getting to know them,” said Shorr.
“It was fun, good time. The games were great and everyone coming together for the Jewish experience was great,” added Sacks.
“It was a great unifying experience that enabled different types of Jews and people of all backgrounds to come together to share educational, religious and athletic experiences,” said Shaw, who along with Pattis undertook much of the planning and preparation leading up to the tournament.
“This is a great collaboration between the JCC and Hillel, which is important for our community,” said Sam Bloom, director of Emma Kaufmann Camp.
“The partnership and camaraderie we have is something you can’t take for granted,” said Schreiber.
“It really showed the unity of the Pittsburgh community,” added Weinberg. “It was a good positive experience.”
“It’s been fantastic,” said Schreiber. “I think we should talk about how to build on this in the future.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at email@example.com.