In late September, Melvin Robinson, a 6-foot-5 former professional basketball player, stood inside a small gymnasium in New York City, arms folded, surveying a few dozen 14- and 15-year-old boys running up and down a hardwood court. It was the first day of junior-varsity basketball tryouts at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, the prestigious Jewish school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and Robinson was its new head coach.
Last season, Heschel’s JV team won just three games in the Metropolitan Yeshiva High School Athletic League—commonly referred to as the Yeshiva League—and Robinson could see why. The players were in terrible physical condition, and they displayed poor fundamentals and lazy work habits. They preferred going one-on-one to sharing the ball—with a penchant for dribbling into traffic and chucking up ill-advised shots—and jogged rather than sprinted back on defense. Guys were dribbling right with their left hand, going left with their right hand, missing layups uncontested. One boy simply picked the ball up and ran with it, in flagrant defiance of basketball’s most basic rule.
Robinson, who once averaged 22.8 points and 11.1 rebounds per game as an All-City high-school player in Queens, looked up at the ceiling, pleading for divine intervention. “Jesus Christ,” he told himself, silently.
But the months since have brought a dramatic turnaround in the team’s fortune. Now, heading into the league playoffs, Heschel’s JV team—which plays its last regular-season game this weekend—has won seven of nine league games. Its varsity team, which lost in the first round of last year’s Yeshiva League playoffs, has also improved its record: It’s currently 21-2 overall and has won two tournaments, including one in Baltimore in December. According to the website Jewish Hoops America, which conducts a weekly Associated Press-style poll, Heschel is ranked fifth nationally among the approximately 80 Jewish high schools that it tracks. “Nobody,” said Elliot Weiselberg, host of the Court Report, a weekly radio show on the Nachum Segal Network covering the Yeshiva League, “expected them to be where they are.”
It’s all part of a plan by the school’s athletic director, Larry Rispoli, to turn Heschel—a rigorous academic school not known for sports—into a basketball powerhouse. Rispoli combines a competitor’s edge with the softness of an educator, and he’s gone outside the Orthodox Jewish world to find like-spirited people to help him build a sports tradition in what some might see as the unlikeliest of places.
The Yeshiva League dates back to the 1940s. The Manhattan Talmudical Academy, one of the founding members, fielded a basketball team as early as 1940, and a 1946 yearbook refers to an “Inter Yeshiva League.” In the 1950s and 1960s, the league held championship games at Madison Square Garden; the 1953 title face-off, pitting the Manhattan Talmudical Academy against the Brooklyn Talmudical Academy, was scheduled as a warm-up act before a game between the Boston Celtics and the New York Knickerbockers and drew a crowd of nearly 10,000 people, many of them yeshiva students from throughout the city. Since 1965, MTA has won the most titles—eight—followed by the Frisch Cougars and the Yeshivah of Flatbush Falcons, with six each.
Today, 22 schools compete on the Yeshiva League’s JV level, which is broken up into Long Island, Brooklyn, New York City, and New Jersey divisions. The league’s 18 varsity teams are split into two divisions: Eastern and Western. Team nicknames tend toward alliteration; there are the Rambam Ravens, and Heschel Heat, and the now-defunct Sephardic Sonics, who took the 1984-85 crown.
The first Jewish High School League All-Star Game was held in 1954. Not on the court for that one was a Manhattan Talmudical Academy student named Ralph Lifschitz—now known as Ralph Lauren—who made one basket all season. The following year’s All Star Game failed to showcase the talents of a youngster named Alan Dershowitz, who scored 4 total points for Brooklyn Talmudical Academy during the entire 1954-55 campaign before going on to become a professor at Harvard Law. Today, while there have been breakout players from the brainiac set—Harvard alum Jeremy Lin, most famously—it remains a rarity for a Yeshiva League player to make it higher than the Division III college level.
Heschel, whose high school opened in 2002, has an even weaker record. Its varsity team has yet to win a Yeshiva League championship. Only a handful of graduates have gone on to compete at the Division III level. But Rispoli, the first and only athletic director in Heschel’s brief history, hopes to change that by making Heschel into a competitive incubator for serious players.
Rispoli joined Heschel in late 2001, as the high school was preparing to open, and he refers to the athletic program as “my baby.” He built it from scratch, designing the school’s logo, picking out the uniforms, even coaching some of its early teams. There were some rough moments; Rispoli remembers facing some opposing coaches who refused to shake his hand or talk to him because he wasn’t Jewish, which hurt him deeply. But over time, he said, he was increasingly accepted as people got to know him.
Yet school policy restricted teams to practicing just two or three days a week, and with a dual curriculum of both secular and Jewish courses packed into an extra-long school day, players were drained by the time they reached the court. And finding good coaches willing to take part-time positions wasn’t easy, either. “In the Jewish day school world, coaches go, ‘Who is going to look at me? What kind of athlete am I generally gonna really have?’ ” Rispoli said. “All coaches have egos—I have an ego, everybody has an ego—they want to coach where they’re recognized, where scouts come, and they have a résumé that says, ‘Hey, I coached at all these top-notch programs.’ ”
In the last year, Rispoli has cobbled together a new coaching staff for his basketball program, all with professional experience. He hired Evan Pickman, a longtime scout for the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers and a former college coach who boasts the highest winning percentage in the history of the College of Staten Island, to run the varsity program. Assisting Pickman is Abe Keita, a 6-foot-10 former St. John’s player from the Ivory Coast who works with Heschel’s post players and dwarfs his tallest pupil by a good nine inches. And then there is Robinson, who sports a smooth, shaved head and a cursive tattoo of his name on his bicep.
Last summer, Rispoli was at a Red Mango frozen yogurt shop in Edgewater, N.J., when a stranger named Cynthia Patterson approached him. She had overheard Rispoli mention to another customer that he was seeking a new coach, and she said she knew just the right guy. A sociable woman with connections to pro athletes and celebrities through fundraisers she sponsors, Patterson told Rispoli about Robinson, with whom she co-founded Better Baller Athletics, an organization that runs athletic and educational programs for inner-city youth.
Robinson had been coaching at Choir Academy of Harlem, a predominantly African-American school that was being shut down due to poor performance. Coming in to Heschel—where a year of tuition for a 12th grader costs nearly $40,000 and where the students, as Rispoli put it, will someday be “the movers and shakers of the world”—represented a radical change.
Robinson, who is 34, grew up in South Jamaica, Queens. His parents lacked “fancy college degrees,” Robinson said, but “they were able to teach me to work hard, always had a roof over our heads, and always made sure we had a meal.” He starred at Benjamin N. Cardozo High School in Bayside, leading his team to a 21–2 record in his senior season. He was a high-energy performer, the rare breed of player who actually enjoyed running sprints in practice. Ron Naclerio, the legendary Cardozo coach, told the Daily News in 1998 that Robinson was “one of the few kids who I wish could be with me as long as I coach.”
Robinson earned a scholarship to St. Peter’s University, a Division I school in New Jersey, and became a team captain. After graduating he played in China, Mexico, and Argentina. At 30, he retired from playing and went to work in the New Jersey Nets’ front office and also helped establish Better Baller Athletics, through which he coached an AAU team. “I loved it,” he said, “It was kind of like me out there playing.”
But remaking Heschel’s players in his image, he knew, would take some doing. “To come in and be part of changing the culture and making something great—that’s what made this position interesting to me,” he said. Robinson’s cool, confident demeanor contrasts with the intensity of his practices. He started with the basics, drilling his players in proper shooting technique, ball handling, and footwork. Transitions from one drill to the next are quick and efficient; if Robinson notices anyone loafing, the entire team runs sprints. “It’s either you work hard in your drills, or you don’t work hard, piss me off, and then we run,” he said. And he had them run—a lot.
At first, players complained. But eventually they bought in, and as discipline and conditioning improved, Robinson began implementing his uptempo, attacking style of basketball—a system emphasizing aggressive, balanced offense and full-court pressure defense. Freshman Michael Gatan, the team’s starting point guard who unexpectedly appeared at school one recent day donning a Mohawk-like hairdo, said that absent Robinson’s “tough love” approach, he’d be playing “pretty lackadaisical.” Sophomore center Sam Schwartzben admitted he used to mess around at early season practices—behavior that had been tolerated in the past—but that he changed his attitude when Robinson threatened to bench him. “Now I’m not goofing off as much,” he said.
During a practice in December, Robinson—wearing an orange Heschel T-shirt that said “There’s Only One Way, And That’s The Right Way” on the front and “Go Hard or Go Home” on the back—stood tall with his arms folded, closely observing his players’ movements. After technical mistakes, such as incorrect footwork, he’d halt practice and use the error as a teachable moment, demonstrating the correct method, and then have players repeat the skill until they got it right.
Robinson has help. Most of the noise during JV practices emanates from the mouth of assistant coach Perry Dortch, a short and fiery ex-Marine who is founder of the Aikido Club of Queens, where he goes by the title sensei. A Jew who spent much of his childhood playing ball against black kids on the playgrounds of Queens, Dortch was Robinson’s middle-school coach and mentor—he easily identified with kids like Robinson, who grew up, like himself, in challenging circumstances—and later became a varsity head coach at two public schools, Van Buren and Francis Lewis.
After Robinson asked Dortch to join his staff at Heschel, he made an immediate impact, players said. In particular, they credit him with delivering an epic speech reminiscent of Gene Hackman’s Hoosiers pep talk, albeit in his gritty Queens accent, at halftime of a big early-season road game, a talk that inspired a dominant second-half performance. But Dortch said that what Heschel’s players are learning from their new coaches goes beyond basketball. “I think they’re learning respect for different kinds of people in the world,” Dortch said. “That there’s something to learn from everyone.”
During a recent JV game, Pickman, the varsity coach, sat in the front row of Heschel’s bleachers, eyeing future prospects. In his 26 years as an NBA scout, Pickman attended practices of Hall of Fame coaches like Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and John Chaney. He was also an instructor at the prestigious Five-Star Basketball Camp. During that time he accumulated so much basketball knowledge that he became convinced that he’d improved as a coach. He decided to return to coaching, where his heart was, to prove that hypothesis correct. The only question was where he’d get that opportunity. Like Robinson, he landed at Heschel partly by chance; his path to the school involved becoming friends, while walking his dog in Central Park, with a Heschel mother whose son plays basketball.
Heschel had built a commanding 30-plus point lead against the Westchester Wolverines. Pickman pointed out that most Yeshiva League teams play a soft, packed-in 2-3 zone that enables offenses to just walk the ball up the court. But Robinson’s defense had trapped and pressed and forced the Wolverines into repeatedly coughing up the ball. “We pick you up in the locker room,” Pickman said, “and when we get the ball, we’re running.”
As for Rispoli, he’s relishing Heschel’s stellar season. Of course, ending Heschel’s championship drought and adding a mark to the Yeshiva League history books would be nice, but for now, he’s just happy to see his plan bearing fruit. “It took some time, but finally I have two people who understand what we need to do here,” he said, “I’m gonna keep my fingers crossed that these guys stick around.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Heschel’s last regular-season game will be played on Feb. 9, not on Feb. 3.
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