|Rick Barry obliges the press of autograph seekers. Charles Zusman|
There’s no me in basketball, it’s about what you can do to make your team better.” With that statement Rick Barry shared his winning ways with young players at the Torah Academy of Bergen County in Teaneck last Thursday at the school’s gym.
“If you don’t play defense, you’re not going to win any championships,” the retired NBA great continued. His strategy insights were followed by demonstrations of ball-handling, shooting technique, and key defensive skills.
He cautioned the youngsters to play low. “If you can’t touch your knees you’re not in a good position,” he said, demonstrating a half-crouch. Even though teamwork is key, there are times when you go it alone, free throws being one of them. Also, “if you have the best shot, you take it,” he said.
By anybody’s measure a superstar of his day, Barry, born in Elizabeth, began playing at Roselle Park High School, where he was All-State. He went on to be an All-American at the University of Miami. His professional career began when he was drafted by the San Francisco Warriors in 1965 and ended with the Houston Rockets in 1979 to 1980.
During his career in the then American Basketball Association and National Basketball Association, Barry earned many awards and honors, including being named one of the “50 Greatest Players in NBA History.” After winding up his playing career, Barry went on to coaching and broadcasting.
Did the boys know of Barry’s basketball fame? It seemed a fair question, given that they weren’t even born when Barry retired as a player. The answer was succinct: “Of course, everybody knows of Rick Barry,” said Yehuda Yeger, 16, of Monsey.
The articulate manner that made him a success as an announcer served him well addressing the youngsters, who listened with rapt attention. Still straight, lean, and agile at 64, the 6-foot-7 Barry moved around the court like a much younger man.
Yoel Kaplan, 17, of Teaneck, was tapped for some one-on-one demonstrations with the star. “I am only about 50 years older than he is,” quipped Barry, just slightly winded.
“It was an unbelievable experience,” Yoel said later. “You don’t learn how unbelievable these players are until you meet them.”
The Torah Academy athletes compete in the Yeshiva League, comprising 22 varsity teams in Westchester, Long Island, and New Jersey.
Barry’s appearance at TABC follows a lucky set of circumstances. The connection was made through his friendship with Robert Katz, executive vice president for North America of Migdal Ohr, a charitable organization in Israel caring for orphaned and underprivileged children. Barry has visited Migdal Ohr and is an active supporter.
His visit to TABC came about through the sponsorship of Dr. Moshe Wertenteil, who agreed to make a “sizeable contribution” to Migdal Ohr for Barry’s visit. For Barry, his role as a mentor clearly fit him well and he needed no incentive to address the kids.
“This is a classic mensch,” Katz said of Barry. Katz’s son Jason is a student at the school.
For his part, Barry offered high praise for Migdal Ohr’s founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Grossman. “Promise me if you ever go to Israel, go to Midgal Ohr,” Barry told the youngsters. “Nobody had more influence on me than Rabbi Grossman,” he continued. “Love pours out of this man.”
Barry’s talk went beyond basketball.
“The chances of becoming a professional athlete are not very good, so you have to do well in school,” Barry said. “Find something you have a passion for – if you love what you do it will never be a job.”
“The key to success in anything you do in life is to have confidence in yourself,” Barry said. “You can’t be afraid to fail; learn from your mistakes.”
“It’s really important to have a routine, and do it the same way every single time,” said Barry, explaining that diligent practice builds that critical confidence.
He added a warning against drug abuse. “If you do something bad for yourself, you’re only tricking one person, and that’s you,” he said.
On the nuts-and-bolts of playing, athletic director Bobby Kaplan summed up the message: “Being good at something takes practice. Get the technique right then practice, practice, practice.”
Elie Hirt, 17, of Edison, came away from the session with a dual message. What did he learn from Barry? “How to become a better shooter – and about life.”