Special Magic on the Basketball Court

Within this unique basketball community, players — ranging from those on the autism spectrum to individuals with Down syndrome or those who are non-verbal — find a common language on the court.
February 15, 2024

Every Sunday at the J Los Angeles (formerly known as Westside JCC), Jacob Artson eagerly arrives at the court, anticipating his weekly basketball practice — a tradition he has upheld for the past 17 years, starting when he was just 13. 

When the sun sets on Saturday evening, February Feb. 24, Jacob, along with his teammates in Special Macabees, a free basketball program catering to Jewish special-needs athletes, will gear up for their much-anticipated “Big Game.” The culmination of weeks of dedicated practice, the game marks the pinnacle of a season that kicked off in November of 2023.

For this diverse group, the allure extends beyond the prospect of victory and medals. For some, it’s the joy of practice, the chance to engage in spirited basketball matches with friends, and the sheer enjoyment of the game. Eitan Wernick, a 26-year-old player, arrives with his father Jonathan, relishing the thrill of chasing the ball, making catches,and executing passes. In the grand scheme of things, this practice session holds immense value — it’s not just about the game, but a shared opportunity for camaraderie and enjoyment.

Within this unique basketball community, players — ranging from those on the autism spectrum to individuals with Down syndrome or those who are non-verbal — find a common language on the court. Regardless of their backgrounds or abilities, the unspoken understanding they share transcends words, creating a space where everyone is on equal footing. On this court, basketball becomes more than a sport; it becomes a medium through which connection and understanding flourish.

Jeff Liss, the visionary behind Special Macabees, embarked on this project in 2005 after 15 years as a volunteer basketball and softball coach with Special Olympics. Liss, who became observant 25 years ago, faced a dilemma as he realized that maintaining Shabbat adherence posed a challenge for his continued involvement in Special Olympics, as their games were scheduled on Saturdays.

The turning point occurred during a stroll down 3rd Street in Santa Monica when Liss encountered a group of youngsters wearing kippahs. Curious about their athletic activities, he approached their leader with a simple question: “What do you do for sports, for exercise?” To his surprise, the response was, “We don’t do anything.”

This revelation sparked an “aha” moment for Liss. Recognizing the untapped potential of observant Jewish athletes with special needs, he felt compelled, with the encouragement of his wife, to establish a special-needs basketball group. However, navigating this new venture presented numerous challenges. At every juncture, obstacles such as high costs, insurance concerns, and difficulty securing gym facilities seemed insurmountable.

“Three or four months later, my wife asked me, ‘Hey, what’s going on with that special-needs group?’ I said, ‘I’m getting blocked on every corner,’ and she answered, ‘Just go and do it. Don’t let these obstacles stop you.’”

That realization struck a chord with Liss, confirming that the passion for playing basketball transcended concerns about logistics and formalities like insurance. Their primary desire was to step onto the court and engage in the game they loved. Fueled by this understanding, Liss took decisive action. He secured the basketball court at the JCC, enlisted volunteers as coaches, procured basketballs, and started the recruitment of players.

His proactive approach extended beyond conventional channels. Whenever he spotted a special-needs child on Pico Boulevard, he would eagerly approach them, striking up conversations with their parents. Liss left no stone unturned, visiting shuls, coffee houses, kosher restaurants and Jewish centers, engaging with anyone willing to listen about the Special Macabees initiative.

The fruits of his efforts materialized swiftly. In almost no time, Liss successfully recruited enough players to form not just one but two groups — one for men and another for women. What began with those teenagers has evolved over the past 16 years; those original participants are now in their 20s and 30s and still actively playing. The tradition persists, with the Special Macabees community gathering every Sunday morning between November and February, embodying the enduring spirit of camaraderie and shared love for basketball.

“They would wake up early in the morning and wouldn’t stop talking about the practice.” – Jeff Liss

“They just love it,” Liss told the Jewish Journal. “They would wake up early in the morning and wouldn’t stop talking about the practice. It’s one and a half hours of practice and it’s an opportunity to exercise and run.”

Despite relocating from Los Angeles to New Jersey seven years ago, Liss continues to oversee the program from a distance, relying on a dedicated team of volunteer coaches, including: Rob Green, Yossi Bock  and Jay Davis, who coach the men’s team and Jodi Weiss, Michelle Bryar and Elana Artson, who coach the women’s team.

Artson shared her perspective on the experience. “It’s beautiful seeing them on the court and they are incredibly supportive of each other,” she said. “They challenge themselves and it boosts their confidence when they learn a new skill.”

Over the years, the composition of the group has naturally evolved — some players have departed, new faces have joined, and a few have remained since the inaugural practice game. The players, who range from age 18 to 50, present a diverse array of abilities; skills such as dribbling a basketball or mastering the hop vary. What unites them all is the shared purpose of having fun. In this community, the emphasis is not on individual achievements or shortcomings but on the collective joy and camaraderie fostered by the love of the game.

“When I first initiated the program, I vividly recall observing the parents, and it was a truly heartwarming sight,” Liss said. “Their expressions conveyed sheer beauty — they gazed at their children, many of whom had never before engaged in this sport or experienced the thrill of dunking a basketball, yet their faces lit up with enormous smiles. Witnessing the joy and satisfaction these parents derived from watching their kids have so much fun on the court was incredibly fulfilling.”

Liss’ team inadvertently played a role in a heartwarming love story. Reflecting on this unexpected outcome, he said, “I met one of my athletes downtown with her mom. After approaching them, I asked if her daughter would be interested in joining our team, to which she agreed. For a while, her parents accompanied her to the games. However, one day they couldn’t make it and asked their other daughter, the twin sister of our player to accompany her to practice. While there, she struck up a conversation with a lady she met. The lady asked her if she was searching for a ‘shidduch’ (a matchmaking prospect). The young woman said ‘yes’ and approximately nine months later, her mom called me with an apology, saying they had forgotten to invite me to the wedding.”

It turns out that through the connection made during practice, the daughter was introduced to a nice Jewish man. The couple eventually got married, and they now live in Jerusalem, where they are happily raising two children. The unexpected love story stands as a testament to the broader impact and meaningful connections forged within the Special Macabees community.

Participation in the team and attending the games is free. Liss warmly extends an invitation to anyone interested in joining; the only prerequisite is to be special.

The Special Macabees’ “Big Game” will take place on Saturday, Feb. 24 at 7:45 p.m. at J Los Angeles, 5870 W Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles.

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