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Where’s the Jewish Jeremy Lin? Maybe Playing in New York’s Yeshiva League

At the Heschel School, an ambitious plan to become a basketball powerhouse is paying off and turning scholars into ballers

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Melvin Robinson coaches Heschel’s JV basketball team in January. (Louie Lazar)
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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.

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Where’s the Jewish Jeremy Lin? Maybe Playing in New York’s Yeshiva League

At the Heschel School, an ambitious plan to become a basketball powerhouse is paying off and turning scholars into ballers