At ‘Jewish March Madness,’ Hillel students gather for basketball and kibitzing

At ‘Jewish March Madness,’ Hillel students gather for basketball and kibitzing

COLLEGE PARK, Md. -Dribbling blurs across four parallel basketball courts, the players who came for the Shabbaton that was the National Hillel Basketball Tournament filled a football field-size gymnasium in a marathon of games.

Forty-one teams and 300 players from colleges across the United States came to the University of Maryland campus last weekend for the tournament’s fourth incarnation in what also represented a homecoming of sorts: Back-slapping recognitions renewed acquaintances from summer camp and high school days.

The 30 colleges whose Hillels sent teams here included seven – Duke, Harvard, Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Texas, and UCLA – that qualified for the NCAA Tournament. And while the play here was hardly up to March Madness standards, it was plenty good and highly competitive.

The men’s title game, in fact, featured two athletes who have attained the heights of collegiate sports: Jacob Susskind, who plays for Maryland, and Anthony Firkser of Harvard – the Crimson’s football team, that is.

Maryland would win not just the men’s crown but the women’s, too.

Arriving at Ritchie Coliseum for the championship game – most contests were held at the larger Reckford Armory across the street – Mr. Susskind hobbled in, a function of fatigue from the nonstop hoops.

The Terrapins played in the National Invitational Tournament last spring, so he could not compete in the 2013 national Hillel tourney. He said he was glad he came this time.

“It’s to help spread the word about Jewish people in basketball,” he said. “It’s a cool concept: to come together with the same religious belief, and to do something everyone likes to do, which is play basketball, is a plus.” On Sunday afternoon his team, one of seven Maryland men’s and women’s clubs at the tournament, won a preliminary-round game.

Mr. Susskind, who attended the Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter school in West Orange, spoke at courtside while watching Kansas play Massachusetts, and pointed to a Kansas guard wearing uniform No. 10.

“He came up to me the other day and said, ‘I know you.’ It was cool to see him,” Mr. Susskind said. The two had played each other seven years ago at a Jewish day school tournament in Baltimore.

The Kansas player, Cory Gutovitz, said he had guarded one of Mr. Susskind’s Hillel teammates, Nachum Shapiro, at the same Baltimore tournament, and stayed at Mr. Shapiro’s home.

“I was always active in Hillel, and I love basketball,” he said. “I didn’t realize how many people would be here until Friday night dinner, when I saw maybe 500 people.”

“It was Jewish March Madness. I’ve gone to Jewish tournaments in high school and had the same mind-set: that these Jewish kids can’t be that amazing. Here, I learned my lesson: It’s good, competitive basketball.”

It’s also a schmooze fest. Mr. Gutovitz and four other Kansans stayed at the campus apartment of Tara Feld, Mr. Shapiro’s girlfriend. Chatting in the building’s corridors late Saturday night, Mr. Gutovitz met a female student who had attended the wedding of his basketball teammate at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kan.

He also ran into two Maryland players who he had met a year earlier when they represented their Dallas school, the Yavneh Academy, at Yeshiva University’s Red Sarachek Tournament.

And so it went: a 48-hour festival of basketball and gabbing, with breaks for kiddush, havdalah and Shabbat meals.

“It’s like the Maccabiah Games – but everyone speaks English,” quipped Tal Brody, who played in the Maccabiah and starred as a professional in Israel, where he still lives, following an All-America career as a point guard at Illinois.

While a key player when Maccabi Tel Aviv captured the 1977 European Cup, Mr. Brody can’t boast of having earned the Kiddush Cup, the trophy the Maryland teams raised as Hillel tournament champions.

The women’s Most Valuable Player Award went to Paige Siegel, a point guard for the winning Maryland club. Her cousin, Bruce Levenson, the owner of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, watched her.

“I didn’t realize the magnitude of it,” Mr. Levenson said. “A lot of the players really have game.”

JTA Wire Service

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