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Maccabi USA basketball team receives gold medal after winning all six games. photos courtesy of steve Rosner

When Maccabi came a-courtin’ last year, Steve Rosner bounced into action.

The American affiliate of Maccabi, the global Jewish sports organization, was looking for someone to help coach the men’s basketball team competing in the 12th quadrennial Pan American Maccabi games, held in São Paulo, Brazil, from Dec. 26 to Jan. 2. The games brought together 2,000 athletes from 16 countries.

“I didn’t really have to think twice about it,” said Rosner of the invitation to coach. “It was something that I jumped at,” said the Closter resident.

In 1976, Rosner had led the basketball team that competed in Lima, Peru, for the 3rd Pan American games. Rosner had just graduated high school, and after his team from the Bayonne Jewish Community Center competed in the national JCC tournament, he was on the all-tournament team that went to Lima.

“Truthfully, we didn’t do that well,” he recalled.

This time, though, the U.S. team won all six games and brought home the gold medal.

The third game, against Brazil, was “amazing,” he said. “We hit a three-point shot when the buzzer went off to win the game by three points. We got the footage to ESPN, which showed it as one of the top 10 plays of the day.”

This year’s team had an advantage over Rosner’s first squad: They were all former college players, aged 22 to 27, not high school graduates.

Rosner and his colleagues – head coach Stu Wittner from Morristown, and assistant coach Don Kelbick from Florida – researched and recruited Jewish college players, with 24 coming to New Jersey last May for tryouts. The chosen team members trained over three subsequent weekend mini-camps over the months before heading to Brazil.

“One of the amazing things was how well they got together and bonded and became a real team,” said Rosner. “It has to do with their love of the sport and, probably more importantly, our Jewish faith.”

“They all had their own experiences playing basketball, but not with people of their own faith. Not to mention the pride you have with the letters USA across your chest,” he said.

“It was a great bunch,” said Wittner of the team. “very coachable, very high I.Q.”

The night before leaving for Brazil, Rosner took the team to Friday night services at Temple Emanu-El of Closter, where he is a member.

“A lot of the players said to me that they were not that familiar with Friday night services. It was very uplifting, to feel a part of the Jewish community before they were going to represent their country. It is something they’ll never forget,” he said.

“My fondest memory while we were there is when we were up on the medal stand and they’re giving us the gold medal. I’m a proud American and any time I go to a sporting event, I make sure to sing the national anthem. When they played the national anthem, you could see that all the guys were very emotional, including me. It was really fun to hear Hatikvah, which played afterwards, as well.”

Back home in Closter, the gold medal now hangs from the kitchen fixture.

“My wife, Stefanie, and my daughters Melissa and Amy thought it would be a good idea, so when we go by we can see it,” he said.