What can possibly be the common thread between Dolph Schayes, Nate Thurmond, Wes Unseld, Rabbi Akiva and Nachum Ish Gamzu?
When you consider the archetype of Jewish basketball, you would be justified to think of crafty “floor generals” like Barney Sedran, Nat Holman, Larry Brown and Nancy Lieberman – all of whom used “sechel” (smarts) to out-fox the opposition, thereby putting mind over matter. You might even think that the “back door play” was the ultimate expression of Mosaic movement on the hardwood – perhaps since its origins are rumored to have been created on a little makeshift court on Hester Street in NYC’s Lower East Side, wedged between Spero’s sour pickle kiosk and Zimmerman’s chremslach pushcart.
I’d like to posit that the most spiritually Jewish aspect of basketball is in fact the art of rebounding! Shooting the ball, and scoring is, in many ways, linked to “gashmiut” or conspicuous consumption, which has to be closely monitored and regulated, at least according to the sages (but they were not all so keen on spending valuable time on such trivial pursuits as athletics to begin with).
On the other hand, rebounding transforms “ayin,” or “nothingness” (after all, a missed shot is just a black mark on your shooting percentage) to “yesh” or “somethingness” – a major symbol in Kabbalah, and reflected in the seminal Zohar, authored by the early Real Madrid fan Rabbi Moshe de Leon (more on Real later in this blog). “Yesh mi Ayin” or the act of creation ex nihilo (from a void) is what rebounding is all about. As opposed to shooting the ball, you never hear a coach criticize a player for rebounding too much.
Over a Goldstar and some Bamba we could argue whether offensive rebounding or defensive rebounding is more uplifting spiritually. With offensive ‘boards you can immediately transform a wasted act into something positive, with either a put-back or a pass to a teammate to initiate a new play. The tip-in is of course the pinnacle of expediency, where you are rewarded with a basket and a rebound, statistically.
With defensive rebounding you can transform the “ayin” of the opposition into a beautiful act of creativity – such as a fastbreak. The saying “Gam Zu LeTova” or “it’s all for the better” credited to serial optimist Nachum Ish Gamzu is what defensive rebounding is all about.
In my formative days as a player I loved watching how the late Nate Thurmond of the Golden State Warriors and the late Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets “cleared the boards” with determination, and was always impressed with how Unseld outplayed much taller opponents. I think my collegiate habit of kicking my legs out when rebounding subliminally came from watching Thurmond and Unseld.
As my career blossomed, I tried to pattern my game after Alvan Adams of the Phoenix Suns and Dave Cowens of the Boston Celtics, who were both highly mobile centers (not overly tall) who triggered fast breaks at every chance when they grabbed defensive rebounds.
For those of us raised in the Yeshiva University sphere, and that of NYC-area yeshiva high schools and allied summer camps, the most impressive rebounders were Paul Merlis and the late Shelly Rokach. When Shelly or Paul boxed you out, the only way you were getting around them was when the lights went out in the gym.
The best Jewish rebounder of all time is unquestionably the late Dolph Schayes – a member of the NBA’s All Time Top 50 Player list and former NBA rebounding champion and holder of one of the highest rebound-per-minute ratios ever. I was fortunate to get to know Dolph at several Maccabiah Games, where he coached our USA team. I played a couple of times against his son Danny, who himself had a long NBA career after starring at Syracuse.
In the post Schayes era, the best Jewish rebounder was arguably the late Neal Walk, who led the NBA in rebounding for a time while playing for the Phoenix Suns. I first met Neal when I had to face off against him when he was ending his playing career at Hapoel Tel Aviv in the Israeli Premier League, where his teammates included the ABA vet Barry Leibowitz and Israeli fan favorite Lavon Mercer, a distinguished rebounder himself.
I will drop some more names if you don’t mind, but a few years after that I had the honor of playing with Neal in the legendary Glen Cove (Long Island) league, on the best team I’ve ever played on. We had Neal at center, Real Madrid and Euro league champion Walter Szczerbiak on the wing, I was the power forward, and the backcourt featured the late Tommy Emma (Duke & Detroit Pistons), and my fellow Great Neck product Billy Omeltchenko who ran the very Jewish Princeton offense for Pete Carril (accents of Red Holtzman and Red Sarachek in that style for sure!).
Speaking of Jewish-style college basketball offensive maneuvers, how about North Carolina’s vaunted Arba Kanfot offense (more formally known as “Four Corners”)? The late Dean Smith knew about “savlanut”/patience and exemplars like Phil Ford knew when to strike for maximum effect after lulling the opposition to snooze.
The two most difficult opponents that I attempted to rebound against were Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers at the Rucker Tournament, and Caldwell Jones of the San Antonio Spurs (I had to play against him in the New York Summer Pro League while still fasting for Tisha B’Av…it was not fun).
In this year’s NCAA men’s March Madness, we saw the most memorable rebound ever grabbed by a non-player. Indiana was playing against St. Mary’s and after an errant shot, the ball got lodged in the upper apparatus of the backboard, far above human reach. First a 7 foot player tried to dislodge it with a broom, but it was for naught – but then sprightly Indiana cheerleader Cassidy Cerny jumped on the shoulders of her male teammate was able to knock the ball loose with much elan. She was subsequently able to secure a sportswear sponsorship deal as a result!
This all proves that Rabbi Akiva was indeed right when he said that “All that G-d does is for the good” especially when it comes to basketball at the very least.