Basketball league in memory of man who loved the sport
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Basketball league in memory of man who loved the sport

What better way to memorialize a Jewish father who loved kids and basketball than to start a league named for him?

Not long after Bergenfield resident Mitchell Gross died suddenly during an April 2008 pickup basketball game in Teaneck, his friends started thinking about an appropriate tribute.

The result is the Mitch Gross Basketball League (MGBL), open to boys in grades three to eight.

Aimed at Orthodox kids from different schools and hometowns in North Jersey and neighboring areas, the Sunday league will focus on basketball fundamentals and teamwork. MGBL runs under the auspices of Hot Shots, a private local sports program started by Rabbi Steven Penn, an assistant principal for Judaic studies at Yavneh Academy in Paramus.

“We were thinking about a basketball program to bring all the communities together anyway, and we realized that since Mitch was a great basketball player, this would be a perfect way to memorialize him,” said Moshe Zwebner of Teaneck, one of several founders of the league.

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The late Mitch Gross was pictured at a Yankees game. Yehuda Kohn

Gross, a 39-year-old pharmacist, was the divorced father of three children: Jordana, 14, now a student at the Frisch School in Paramus; Alex, a sixth-grader at the Moriah School in Englewood; and Joseph, a Moriah second-grader. After covering general expenses and minimal salaries, all profits of the mostly volunteer-run league will be used to create a yeshiva scholarship fund in memory of Gross.

“Mitchell would be so proud and so honored to have this league in his memory,” said his mother, Harriet. She and her husband, Norman, live in Queens but are sponsoring several teams. “He was a tough player, very competitive, but he knew you have to have sportsmanship and menschlichkeit [decency] at the same time. So this combines everything that he loved: children playing, and teaching them how to play a good game.”

Gross had an older brother, David, who lives in Woodmere, and a sister, Stephanie Lejtman, who lives in Teaneck.

Last November, Rabbi Michoel Goldin, youth director of Friends of Lubavitch of Bergen County, established a fund in Gross’ memory to create “kindness” programs involving dozens of area children and teens.

“To us, and to his sister and brother, the fact that people are talking about Mitchell every day is tremendously comforting,” Harriet Gross said. “They didn’t forget my child.”

Teaneck resident Dov Elefant, co-head of operations for MGBL with Penn, reported that since online registration opened on Aug. 16, 215 boys have signed up. The founders hope to register 300 by Oct. 16 through an MGBL link on www.hotshotscamp.com.

“I’m quite amazed with how this all developed,” said Elefant. “We met in May with a concept, and in a matter of three to four months the greater community has been informed and involved.”

“The league brings all the different schools and communities together, even some from Passaic and Monsey,” added Zwebner. “It’s a sort of therapy for all of us.”

The league, to meet at 9 a.m. Sundays at the gym of the Bat Torah (formerly Frisch) High School on Frisch Court in Paramus, will be structured with three divisions – 3rd/4th, 5th/6th, and 7th/8th grades – with a travel team for each division planned.

MGBL’s Nov. 1 to March 21 schedule takes into account the vacation calendar of the local day schools. Ten weeks of games are to be followed by playoffs for all teams. Participation fee is $150; team sponsorship is $250.

Jewish values are expected to be part and parcel of the league – another nod to the memory of Gross, who had been active in several local congregations.

“He had a great love of [Torah] learning,” said his mother. “He had a sefer [Judaic textbook] with him when he died; he never went anywhere without one.”

Zwebner said that Gross’ passion for sports was tempered by his strong interpersonal values.

“When he played basketball with us, he refused to let any of his friends ‘take’ him on the court. He realized basketball was just basketball but friendships are more important at the end of the day. That’s one of the messages we’re going to be giving,” Zwebner said.

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