There was a time when Benny Baron was the best basketball player around. He had terrific body control and a lightning-quick crossover that he’d sweep across his body, right to left, often leaving his defender lunging in the wrong direction as he barreled to the basket for an easy layup. When his defender would hold a low stance to guard against the drive, Benny would rise up for the jumper, releasing the ball from the center of his forehead, his feet perfectly balanced, his shoulders squared to the rim, his shot always straight.
There was a time when Benny and I played alongside each other in the backcourt, and we ran through layup lines with swagger, knowing we’d win each game. We didn’t. But with our rotation rounded out by Schiffman, Neidich, Yankovich, Hersko, Ellberger, Greenstein, and Safar, we were a veritable Ashkenazi force.
There was a time when simply invoking Benny’s name could carry a student council election, as it did for Schnitzer, the varsity hockey team’s goalie, who stood at the front of the precisely named Multi-Purpose Room and whipped the student body into a frenzy: “Let me be your Michael Jordan. Your Wayne Gretzky. Your Benny Baron.” It was one of the great campaign lines, and we shouted it to each other in the hallway leading to the student lounge where we cast our votes, ushering in 10 months of Schnitzer.
There was a time when Benny Baron was an unstoppable basketball player. And that time was 18 years ago, as students at a yeshiva high school in New Jersey.
Our high school team was filled with some of the most talented players in the league, yet we never came close to competing for the championship. Sure, since graduating from high school, many experiences have diluted the influence that high school basketball has on my identity, but the influence remains nevertheless.
Yankovich and I attended the same college and it would take the slightest reminder for the two of us to devolve into hourlong lamentations over our team’s unrealized potential, which was never our fault. It was the coach. The ref. The tight rims. How could we be expected to win that game after sitting on a yellow school bus for two hours?
“I’m so pissed we never got a shot at the championship,” I’d say.
“We were so good,” Yankovich would say. “We could’ve won the championship.”
“We should’ve won the championship,” I’d quickly insist.
And we’d sit there staring off into the distance, shaking our heads, thinking about all that could have been.
I’d like to think these conversations ended by the time we graduated, but they continued on many years into our adult lives. As time passes, the regretful feeling of not winning ossifies in my memory in a way that winning never could.
Earlier this year, I returned to my high school gym along with Baron, Schiffman, Neidich, Yankovich, Hersko, Ellberger, Greenstein, and Safar. After nearly two years of back-and-forth coordinating, we finally succeeded to schedule a scrimmage against the current boys’ varsity basketball team.
The swagger was gone, replaced by limps and swollen feet lugging considerably more physical and emotional baggage since the last time they walked through this gym.
We got fat. Content. Anxious. Irritable. Tired. Wilted. Hairy. Hairless.
We talked about life insurance policies. State income taxes. Shul budgets. The efficacy of sweat-absorbent undershirts. Elementary school tuition. Our families.
The last time we ran out of this gym, we surely promised ourselves we’d never get old. This time, when we walked back in, we had so visibly broken that promise. We got on with our lives and basketball was no longer anywhere near the center of it.
While shooting around before the game, I was approached by one of the seniors on this year’s squad. When I graduated from high school, he hadn’t been born yet. He never experienced a “pre” to understand all that was lost in a “post” 9/11 world, a turning point I experienced in this same building, after walking into history class and seeing Mr. Bryant listening intently to the news unfolding through the portable radio on his desk.
“What are you guys, like 40,” the senior asked.
I looked at him for a second and imagined tackling him to the ground, allowing his toothpick frame to squirm under my heft. And yet his poor arithmetic endeared me to a multigenerational bond strengthened by the caliber of my high school’s math instruction. Listen buddy, I wanted to say, the neck of his shirt scrunched in my fist, one day you’ll wake up and this will be you, too.
Instead I laughed generously. “No, more like 35.”
I could see in his empty reaction that the five-year correction clearly doesn’t amount to much when the person he was talking to seemed ancient.
“So is this like a reunion for you guys,” he asked.
“Yeah, some of us haven’t seen each other since high school.”
“Wow,” he mouthed, before excitedly sprinting over to his friends on the bench. “Yo, these guys are like 40 and they haven’t seen each other in about a hundred years.”
I continued shooting around, telling myself that we would teach these kids to respect those who came before them by destroying them in basketball.
There are 4 minutes left in the first half and these kids are destroying us in basketball. Everybody is out of shape, nobody can breathe. We used to fight for minutes and now we’re fighting for the bench. Schiffman opened the game with a nifty layup, and we stayed neck and neck for all of 3 minutes.
But these little high school pischers can shoot. And as they hit more and more 3s, which is all they seem to be shooting, we’re missing more and more threes, which is all we seem to be shooting. On most plays our defense is merely symbolic: Five guys gasping for air, feigning a show of energy that was exhausted in the chaos that ensues during the frantic scramble from offense back to defense. Aggressive defense here means hands waving in the air. Otherwise, they’re resting on overburdened hips.
I am one of two players who still plays regularly, regularly meaning the six months of the year that I’m not dealing with a busted ankle, a bruised wrist, or a heavy work schedule. I am blessed to play alongside the only teammates in the world who would regard me as “in shape.”
These kids knock down some more threes and Yankovich, our trusted player-coach, is forced to call a timeout that hardly slows the onslaught. At halftime we trail 33-18, and head into the locker room—which is locked, so we huff and puff in full view of all the family members who have come out to watch this spectacle. After some of the parents insist we pose for just one more photograph, we retreat to the bench and sprawl out like lions after a hunt. Only we are the hunted.
I walk over to my father in the stands and ask him if he’s having a good time.
“Come on,” he says, smiling. “What happened to you guys?”
The most offensive insult you can hurl at a yeshiva basketball player is to tell him that he’s good for a yeshiva player. To insulate ourselves from this invective, my classmate Zach and I would often head to our town’s outdoor courts when the weather warmed. There, we’d join 5-on-5 runs with guys from all over Essex County, including varsity players from a nearby prep powerhouse and older men, sometimes with bullet wounds further scarring their tattooed arms. On one sun-soaked spring day, the local public school’s top two varsity players challenged me and Zach to a game of 2-on-2. We beat them easily, as Zach brought a maniacal aggression to the low blocks while I dropped midrange jumpers cleanly through the double rims. Stunned, they challenged us to a rematch and won. We took the rubber match, and they asked us where we play ball. When we said the name of our yeshiva, they were visibly overcome with shame.
No, we were not your Chaim Potok yeshiva athletes. There were no Talmud prodigies among us, and we’d somehow find the time to play a lot of ball. Our high school day started every morning at 8 with davening, and went straight through until 5:32 in the evening, except for Thursdays, when we had obligatory Torah learning until 7. Throughout these never-ending days, we managed to sneak into the gym to pop a few shots, whether during quick detours on the way to the bathroom or long detours on the way back from the bathroom.
During the season, on Monday evenings, after a full day of secular and Judaic studies, we’d practice from 6 until 9. On Thursdays, we’d practice from 7:30 until 10. We usually played one or two regular season games per week. On Shabbos, my friends would come over to my house after shul, inhale the chicken piccata and glazed corned beef my mother had spent all of Thursday night painstakingly cooking, and we’d play 3-on-3 in my driveway until sundown.
When our next-door neighbors put their house on the market, and my father casually informed me that a rabbi in our community had met with the realtor, I never prayed so hard in my life. Please God, Master of the Universe, Abundant in Kindness, Forgiver of Iniquities, this rabbi deserves a better home. My prayers were answered, the rabbi moved into a better home, and the Shabbos game continued.
One of the harsh experiences of growing up is learning the truth. I played basketball obsessively. I shot around in my driveway for hours on end and only stopped after hitting my last ten free throws. Yet I couldn’t come close to touching the rim and the few hours I’d play each day could only take me so far. The truth is that a good basketball player with limited athleticism and different priorities will never really amount to anything but a good yeshiva player.
The third quarter doesn’t go much better and the kids extend their lead beyond 20. They are kicking us while we’re down, and there’s nothing we can do. We stink.
It’s not all terrible. There are some highlights. Like Safar’s rejection. Hersko’s swat. Ellberger’s tumbling charge. No, it’s not all terrible, but we’re still getting embarrassed.
It’s clear that the fourth quarter will be a bloodbath and it’s only a matter of stanching the flow. The kids are high-fiving each other on the sideline and the family-filled attendees are shaking their heads and smiling with amusement, taking stock of the 18 years that have elapsed since this group last gathered.
We huddle one last time around the bench after Yankovich subs in new personnel, and I implore my teammates to take some pride in our legacy. I look around the huddle. We’re all in pain. Our chests are heaving madly, our hearts are working overtime, and our brains are reminding us that this was a mistake. Hey, schmuck, you think you can just step out here after not moving for 20 years and keep up with high school kids?
Still, we can’t leave here as 25-point losers, not this great squad of yore. So I renew my empty calls for pride. I’m positive nobody hears me, as some check their pulses while others look to their families, perhaps making sure they haven’t been abandoned. We might not have the stamina of our youth, but we certainly have the wisdom of our years to know that it’s too late. The game is over.
At this point we reluctantly stagger onto the court to continue playing because we have no choice. We are not in control of our destiny. We are injured marathon runners dragging our battered bodies across the finish line.
And then something happens.
Benny hits a 3-pointer. The crowd cheers because it’s cute.
And then he hits another. And another. A buzz fills the gym as eyes dart toward the scoreboard.
Something is happening.
On the ensuing possession, Benny head-fakes, drives to the hoop and lays the ball off the glass for two more.
Our next trip down the court, he collects the ball behind the 3-point line, his eyes focused and determined. He looks at the hoop. His defender sprints out at him, right arm extended. Benny doesn’t blink. He fires off another 3-pointer that rips through the net. The crowd goes bonkers and for these few moments, everything is exactly as it used to be.
The atmosphere and the feelings are transcendent. I am back in high school. I am 16 again. A whole life ahead of me. Lanky. Ambitious. Hypermetabolic. Carefree. Energetic. Hopeful. My team is back. A feeling I didn’t remember ever feeling overwhelms me. Benny Baron lives.
And all of a sudden, with 4 minutes to play, we’re down 51-47.
The kids’ coach calls a timeout and Benny heads to the bench for a breather. Between gasps for air, he motions to Yankovich that he needs a rest.
“Come back into the game in 2 minutes,” Yankovich mercifully says. It’s a risky strategy, but Benny has a wife, he has kids.
On the next possession, the opposing point guard fumbles the ball away and I’m out ahead of the pack, racing down the court, setting up behind the 3-point line in the right corner, awaiting the pass. I can feel the fans’ anticipation build and their voices are about to erupt. I am going to hit this 3-pointer.
But before I can get the ball, we turn it over. And then we turn the ball over again. And just like that we’re down by 10 and the final buzzer sounds.
After the game, I walk over to the ref, who is sitting on the sideline, mindlessly swiping through the images filling his iPhone screen.
“Sir, thanks for reffing the game,” I say. “We appreciate your helping us with a few of those calls early on.”
Not looking up from his phone, he smiles and nods.
“Believe it or not, we were very good in high school,” I say.
“Oh yeah?” he says, his eyes tracking the photos scrolling across his screen.
“Yeah, we had one of the most talented teams in the league.”
He shifts his body in his chair, directing his back toward me. He’s off the clock and I don’t exist.
“That guy who hit all those 3s,” I say, while walking away, mostly reminding myself. “That’s Benny Baron.”
It’s after midnight and I text Yankovich to see if he can chat about the game.
“Not now … my CPAP is already on,” he writes.
“Fine,” I type, “We sucked but that was a lot of fun.”
“Yeh it was really awesome,” Yankovich writes. “How many ppl u think were in the stands?”
We fire off texts to each other breaking down our porous 2-3 zone defense, all of the second-half turnovers, and how great it was that some of our former teachers showed up.
“Those 3 minutes of Benny were awesome,” I write.
My phone buzzes and alerts me that I have an incoming call from “Yank the Tank.” I answer.
“How did we ever lose in high school with the team we had,” Yankovich demands.
“I’m so pissed we lost tonight,” I say.
“We could’ve won,” he says.
“We should’ve won.”
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