Jewish Basketball

‘Jesus, Shlomo, how many times do I have to tell you to plant your feet solid when you set the pick? Be a wall, bro, a wall,’ Dave Schoonemaker barked at his lanky center during practice in the Yeshiva’s windowless gym.

Since the start of pre-season, Dave, the rookie coach, had been wondering if his high school basketball team kids were just scared. Not of the contact with an opponent running into them or elbowing them for a rebound on the defensive boards. Nah, despite what they looked like with their Orthodox payot hair curls and the tzitzi strings hanging from their sweat pants, they were tough, healthy boys. They’d grown up dealing with the constant stream of shit that deplorables gave them on the streets and in the subways of Queens.

‘That’s better, Shlomo, but faster cut to the lane. Look for him, Yoni, look for him now. Ball movement, ball movement. It’s what we’re good at,’ Dave yelled as the pick-and-roll drill continued.

Yonaton, the team’s squirrelly point guard, shot a sarcastic smile at his coach, adjusted his wrap-around sports glasses, and danced a jig back to the top of the key.

It wasn’t a physical thing or even a thing about being intimidated by flashier opponents. Like kids at other Jewish schools who wore top-of-the-line Jordan Max Aura’s and whose wealthy non-Orthodox parents sent them to lakeside summer camps to work on their 3’s and other skill development. 

Though it was from an era of high-top Converse sneakers, Dave still believed in the whistle. Now, he blew it and told his players to take free throws with the forwards working on boxing out. ‘Stick your ass out, Dov. It’s big as the fucking F train so use it.’

When Kristy had asked him about it during to-go taco dinner in their one-bedroom Jackson Heights apartment, Dave told her it was the kids’ fear of what was on the other side. 

‘They all play within themselves, Kristy, maybe except Yoni. It’s like they’re scared of what they’re gonna find out if they stop holding back. Fear of fucking freedom, maybe,’ Dave had explained his theory to his wife. They’d married right after he got the PE job and they got the chance to move down to the City like she’d always wanted to after college.

Dave and Kristy had known each other since they were kids in upstate Sullivan County; their deer hunting season and snowplough Schoonemaker and Kreiger families lived down the road from each other. Their dads sometimes worked together as building contractors, including as the Brooklyn Hasid’s and other sects had rebuilt the abandoned bungalow colonies and crumbling Borscht Belt resorts into their summer-time camps and retreats.

The Rabbis, who hired them, teased them about their Dutch Huguenot settler names: ‘Come on, Mr Schoonemaker, you’re really Jewish, right?’. His dad chuckled and didn’t mind at all; they kept him in work while avoiding most of the other locals, especially the Mexicans who understandably resented it.

One Fourth of July weekend as a 16 year old, Dave was swinging a hammer for his dad at a Hasid site where a 75 year old roof was collapsing on the dining hall. A room where jacketed waiters with white linen napkins over their arms had once served well-off, waltzing couples from Whitestone but now fed rowdy families of eight.

He saw that some boys his age, on a break from their Talmudic studies in the camp’s library, were shooting baskets on the half-court with its cracked concrete. Dave perched on the roof line and watched them. He saw they played a fast game, even in their black dress shoes, with no-look passes and working the ball around the dial. But hardly anybody took the ball to the hoop. 

It was the first time he went down the ladder that summer for the pick-up games. Dave hit the Hasidic boys with his cross-over dribbles and scoop lay-ups; he piled up points and, at first, his sides won every time. But as the summer wore on, his competitors learned to tire him out. They’d beat him by hanging off his body in double coverage, and then passing the ball through three sets of hands to sink fade-away jumpers from around 15 feet. By Labor Day, they were shutting him down and he had to battle for every bucket. It was tough and it was good.

The Jews defended hard, covered each other, and played team ball in the way the varsity team he starred on at shooting guard for Liberty High just didn’t. And neither did his next team at Oneonta were he went on Division II part-scholarship. Even as he discovered the limits of his own basketball talent at college level, and as he drank his way through a phys-ed teaching degree, something about the games that summer stuck with Dave. 

Post-college, when he was working a shit job behind plexiglass at a Monticello liquor store, and feeling shit about himself, he’d remember them. It filled him up more than all the “student special” jugs of Long Island Ice Tea at Molly’s Tavern. The bartenders there still took his out-dated SUNY ID card until Kristy had cut it in half with her Swiss Army knife.

After Kristy had showed him the on-line ad, he’d been amazed to get an interview no less hired for his first teaching job by the Kew Gardens Yeshiva. On Day One in September, the head Rabbi had told Dave: ‘Your father’s a mensch. Did some work for my brother upstate. Always fair and honest with us. You will be too. Because we’re taking a chance on you.’

At practice, Dave blew the whistle again and lined the squad up under one basket. They were sweating hard now and stank the way only teenage boys can. Jump for three board taps and then sprint to the other end for three more board taps. Five sets to finish off practice. Last man does 20 push-ups.

‘You’re gonna give Big Dovchick the heart attack, Mr S. His crazy eema is gonna put a Yid curse on you. Make a nasty Dybbuk come after you, Mr S,” Yoni said.

The team wheezed out laughs while their hands were on their knees.

‘Extra set for you, Yonaton.’

Dave pretended to be annoyed. But he thought it was exactly what he needed from these boys. Some fuck-you-cocksucker swag like Yoni had. Not just for the court and winning league games. Not just for being Jews in a society that still scorned their being different as much as it admired their being successful. 

They needed it, Dave figured, for themselves. To be able to make their own choices and their own way in the world. To live on their own terms. To be Americans.

The boys staggered through the last set and Dave sat them down on the courtside folding chairs. Yonaton and Dov and a few others sprawled on the court and caught their breath. Shlomo unwrapped tape from his bad knees.

‘Decent practice, decent effort, ladies,’ Dave said to them. ‘But if we’re gonna be good this year, we need next level.’

Yoni propped himself on an elbow on the gym floor.

‘Next level, Mr S. Like those Jews Amar’e Stoudemire or Omri Casspi?,’ Yoni said.

‘Whatever it takes, Yoni. Same time tomorrow.’

‘Whatever it takes, Mr S,’ Yoni replied.

Then, Yoni lay flat on the floor and sang a little chorus in Yiddish.

Eyn tag, eyn tag!’

Shlomo laughed at as his long legs stepped over Yoni to the locker room. Yoni closed his eyes and breathed deeply three times. Then, he jumped to his feet and jogged to the locker room.

Dov, power forward in name only, picked himself up to. He was slumped over and wiping his chubby face with the bottom of his white singlet. His tzitzi undergarment was showing.  

‘What’s eyn tag, Dov?’ Dave asked. 

‘Mr S, it means “one day”. From a Matisyahu song. Pretend Hasid rock star. Yoni’s secret hero. Yoni smiles and thinks it’s all simple like songs.’

Dave knew the boy needed to get moving for his night-shift dispatcher’s job at his father’s Orthodox-only ambulance business in Rego Park. The dad barely tolerated Dov playing ball.

‘Lemme give you a lift, Dov.’

At dinner that night with Kristy – empanadas from the Ecuadorean lady’s stand under the 7 train – Dave asked Kristy to remind him tomorrow morning. He need to write down “Jewish Basketball” on a Post-It note and stick it to the Yeshiva computer he used to plan his practice drills.

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