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‘Records are made to be broken’ but what if it’s your record?

The author, and his fellow Maccabees (in their short shorts), battling New York Institute of Technology in 1976.
The author, and his fellow Maccabees (in their short shorts), battling New York Institute of Technology in 1976.

It was thrilling – albeit largely surreal – to witness the men’s basketball team of my alma mater Yeshiva University building the longest winning streak in college basketball – and to be recently ranked for a spell as the #1 NCAA “Division III” team in the USA. Kudos to all the Maccabees — namely coach Elliot Steinmetz, his staff and players, and athletic director Greg Fox and his department.

When Yeshiva U. wins in sports it’s the ultimate “man bites dog” story, since the institution is historically known for producing rabbis, doctors, lawyers, and for good measure, a few accountants, businessmen and social workers – but rarely, athletes.

The resources the university has recently invested in the team has been unprecedented, and a far cry from the bare necessities we had in the late 1970’s and before (we did get a free pair of factory-second canvas Chuck Taylors each season from the late, great Red Sarachek’s Circle Athletic Goods store, but often they were 2 left or 2 right sneakers which ironically didn’t impact upon our performance, either way). But even with all the contemporary extras and perks, a team still must mesh, sublimate egos, absorb strategy and make baskets. Nothing is a given, and other teams will have added incentive to knock you off your pedestal (as we have seen in the last few weeks of play).

A month or so ago, it dawned on me that one of my previously sacrosanct records, that of total career rebounds was in jeopardy, as standout forward Gabe Leifer is steamrolling his way to the number one spot (no jinxing intended). Luckily my career per-game rebound average mark is safe for now.

It made me think about how sports records, and past athletic glories are vestiges of youth that we aging jocks all hold on to – and how sports participation has contributed to our self-image over the years. When you are extra-tall for example, a stranger’s question of “how tall are you” is invariably followed by “do you play basketball” as if that justifies your gift of physical stature. I always felt badly for non-ball playing tall kids who would have to sometimes hear the cruel third comment of “wow, what a waste.”

I guess that having a personal record superseded doesn’t entirely nullify your youth (more than one’s arthritic cartilage-depleted knees do), but it does make you think. I’ve had a 40-year run with the record and it’s time to freshen it up. As it happens, Gabe is really fine young man – an extremely admirable role model in fact – so it’s going to good hands, and I hope that I’m able to attend the game when he sets the new standard (late in 2021 he advanced to the #2 spot on the rebounding list).

The other big story is how superstar senior guard Ryan Turell has developed into one of the leading “D3” players in the USA, and there’s even NBA talk, which I’m sure ratchets up the pressure for him. Even though I was drafted by Portland, it was a complete surprise, and no one in their right mind then would have suggested it was possible. These days, there are only 2 rounds of the draft, as compared to 10 in my era, so getting formally drafted is a difficult proposition – especially with all the international players now flooding the NBA job market. Pre-draft tryouts are a different matter, without limitations as far as I know.

The immense, looming question for a Yeshiva U. athlete, is whether it’s possible to be religiously observant as a pro athlete. This is a highly personal matter, but a very public issue in many respects, due to what “YU” has historically stood for.

From direct personal experience I’ve found that it is extremely difficult to thread this religious needle in pro or high-level amateur sports – as an athlete or even as a non-athlete support-staffer or sports journalist for that matter – since sports is a huge weekend activity.

Also, when you are paid to play it changes everything, and there is little appetite for team management to adjust to particulars from individual athletes. Furthermore, most athletes do not want special treatment (especially when they are competing for playing time), so there is self-imposed social pressure to conform and cut corners with religious traditions.

Perhaps things have changed, but even NBA superstars like Hakeem Olajuwon – an observant Muslim – had to play while fasting for Ramadan (not a small challenge), and it would be hard to find personal reasons other than family births or deaths for players to be given a game off.

All this talk makes me think how parents who are religiously observant are to handle children with extraordinary talents. Do you encourage them, even though they will have enormous temptation to leave the straight and narrow path after advancing each milestone?

It’s a historic conflict, that has vexed and fascinated people for decades and has been subject of films such as “The Jazz Singer.” Alternatively, saying to a precocious child that “pursuing that career is not for people like us” is more than a bit sad — yet we do have to ultimately stand for something greater than ourselves – a lesson I learned from my parents and then reinforced by my friend and mentor Dr. Jonathan Halpert, who coached the “Maccabees” for over four decades.

I do wish Ryan all the best since you can’t go through life thinking “what might have been.” I’ve always believed in competing without holding back emotionally – there’s always a risk of heartbreak, but it’s the only way to live. Not that I know Ryan, or that he’s asked for my advice, but…keep your eyes open, beware of “experts” offering advice, be mindful of all the kids who are rooting for you and are looking up to you, and (primarily) enjoy every moment of the ride.

About the Author
Always tall for his age, Dave Kufeld made good use of his stature as an undergrad at Yeshiva College, achieving All American status in Men’s Basketball and leading the nation in rebounding – and subsequently becoming the first known Orthodox Jew to be drafted by an American pro team when he was selected by the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers in 1980 (ironically, he was too short and too observant to fill Bill Walton’s shoes). After completing his professional stint in Israel’s first division (at Maccabi Ramat Gan) he embarked upon a still ongoing career in advertising, marketing, and public relations, with a concentration in law firm and litigation marketing. In 2019, he and his wife Suri made Aliya and reside in Jerusalem, just a wind sprint away from their children and grandchildren.
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