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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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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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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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