By Larry Gordon
If you have not yet seen them, there is still a chance to do so. Even if you do not follow sports, or specifically Division 3 college basketball, you probably could not avoid hearing that the Yeshiva University basketball team has now won 49 consecutive games, and by the time you read this it might very well be 50.
Coach Elliot Steinmetz of Woodmere has crafted an exciting team that plays a fast-paced game utilizing a variety of strategic approaches to besting the opposition. Whether it is the ability to defend or rebound, throw an outlet pass, or deliberately bring the ball up court while surveying the other team’s defense, this team can do it.
On Saturday night at the Max Stern Athletic Center on the Yeshiva University Washington Heights campus, the YU Maccabees defeated Medgar Evers College 104–58. The game was fast-paced from the start, and first-game attendees like us were a little concerned when the Macs, as they are affectionately called, fell behind by six points at the beginning of the first half. But there was no need to fear. The Mac players were probably just shaking off a quiet Shabbos before hitting their usual on-court stride.
The Stern arena, which has about 500 seats, was filled to capacity. We were sitting near the Macs bench with some of the families of the athletes. We had the chance to sit for most of the first half with the mom of leading scorer Ryan Turell. His mom, Laurel, works the crowd throughout the game on both sides of the gym, getting them to noisily cheer on the Macs. About his mom’s exuberance, Ryan recently told the Jewish News Service, “She’s been doing that since I was in first grade.”
Ryan, who is 6’7”, was recently voted as Division 3 Player of the Week by U.S. Basketball Division 3 Writers Association. There is talk online about the possibility of Turell becoming the first Orthodox Jewish basketball player to be drafted by an NBA team. The draft takes place in June. However, it is more likely that he will end up playing professionally in Europe or Israel where the market for talented ballplayers is broader.
Being selected by the NBA and then contracting to play would be a challenge for the young shomer Shabbos ballplayer from Los Angeles. I asked his mom how she thinks he will be able to interface Shabbos and an NBA schedule and she said, “Hashem has always been with him and that will, of course, continue.”
The YU Maccabees team is currently breaking all Division 3 records with a 9–0 season (so far) and a winning streak of now almost 50 games in a row as of the day that this is being written. Turell is one of the big men on the YU team and is joined by his teammate, Jordan Armstrong, who is 6’8”. The two make quite a pair on defense, but Turell, unlike Armstrong, who dominates under the boards, scores from every position on the court.
On Saturday night against Medgar Evers College, Turell scored 38 points, including a half-dozen three-point shots. A few weeks ago, he scored 51 points against Manhattanville College, a YU Macs record.
In our section on Saturday night we were also sitting with the family of veteran forward standout Gabriel Leifer, a resident of Lawrence, NY, and a graduate of DRS High School. Leifer is a graduate student at YU but was granted permission to join the undergraduate team because COVID caused the suspension of an entire season when he was an undergraduate.
Leifer stands at 6’6” and demonstrates a strength and dominance under the boards. He’s a strong young man who authoritatively grabs rebounds and seems to know his team’s offensive plans as well as how to find the open man down court or the open man when members of the Macs are being double-teamed.
We were also sitting in front of the family of backup forward Alon Jakubowitz, who is also a graduate of DRS and now a senior at YU. He stands at 6’7”. Frankly, it is unusual to see so many very tall Orthodox Jewish young men in one place. The impression exists—to me anyway—that this kind of height is highly unusual. His mom, who was sitting behind us with her husband and her mother, told my wife that it is one of their missions in life to bring height to the Jewish people. They are certainly doing a good job.
Alon played a considerable amount of time because the Macs were so far ahead of Evers that Coach Steinmetz was able to rest his starters for a long stretch of the second half. Alon also dominated under the boards and together with the rest of some of the second-string players, they were able to maintain the more than 40-point lead.
This is an outstanding and quick team that fast-breaks, unlike most other teams. If you blink, you might miss some of the action and even the scoring.
One of the great things about this first YU basketball game that I’ve attended is the exuberance of the crowd and the fashion in which they root for their team.
At halftime I spotted YU president Rabbi Ari Berman sitting between YU board members Lance Hirt and Brad Turell (Ryan’s dad). We introduced ourselves to Rabbi Berman and congratulated him on the performance of the team as we chatted about his effective and successful management of such an important educational institution of higher learning that plays such a vital role in international Jewish life.
One of the most exciting aspects of the YU basketball team is its resounding success and how they are the talk of college basketball these days on so many levels. For many of us who were brought up through the Jewish education system, it seems that we are simply not programmed to expect this kind of success in this area. While it might be somewhat of a surprise for many, it is also very satisfying for the team, its coaches, and the fans.
Laurel Turell believes that her son’s smooth style on the court may make it possible for him to be the first yarmulke-wearing player to be drafted and play in the NBA. Ryan told the JNS earlier this year that the NBA is his dream. If that is the case, Coach Elliot Steinmetz is the man who can assist him in bringing that dream to fruition. As you will recall, Elliot’s son Jacob was drafted last year by the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team and is hopeful of realizing a professional baseball career while keeping Shabbos and kosher.
As far as the NBA is concerned, former Knicks ballplayer Amar’e Stoudemire, who is currently an assistant coach with the Brooklyn Nets, may have softened the ground for young men like Ryan. The story is somewhat different considering that Amar’e is a relatively recent convert to Judaism and was not Jewish or shomer Shabbos during his playing career.
For now, we will all be watching the NBA draft in June and waiting to hear about Ryan Turell. As to whether Turell will actually be able to latch on with an NBA team, Coach Steinmetz said, “It’s a possibility, but it will be tough. Ryan is definitely getting looks though, and we have had a number of NBA scouts at various games. I’m not sure what path this is going to take, but it will be interesting to see for sure,” he said.
If Ryan Turell is successful in realizing his dream, he will be easy to spot flying down the court—he will be the young man with shaggy blonde hair and a little blue yarmulke pinned securely to the back of his head.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.