February 26, 2020

The Incidental Joy of Taking Jewish Sports Seriously

Photo from Flickr.

The bell rang, signaling the end of recess, but no one left the yard. This is exactly how it went down: It was sixth grade versus fifth — the reviled fifth — the score was tied, and we had last licks, a runner on, and Hillel at the dish. Stevie was on the mound for the fifth graders. The sixth-grade boys waited on various stages of the jungle gym abutting the field, which was neither dirt nor grass, but a big square of tawny stubble. Looming over the outfield were 15-foot cinder block walls. In our lunchtime wiffle ball games, if you hit one off the wall, it was a home run. 

You don’t choose your flashbacks any more than you choose your memories. For some reason, the tales of games I played while growing up, have stuck with me. As a high school freshman, I kept stats on intramural basketball to stay in the graces of upperclassmen. As a junior, I co-founded an intramural touch football league. And in college, I hosted a campus radio show that used stories about these “Yeshiva Leagues” to describe life in the Jewish enclave I grew up in. Many of those stories emerged from games that didn’t count for anything — backyard battles and recess rumbles that were as essential to my Jewish coming of age as any Gemara lesson they made me late for. 

When I visit the sites of my youth, it’s the playground legends and rivalries that come rushing back. So when I returned to my alma mater, Shalhevet, to watch the finals of a Jewish high school basketball tournament, I flashed back to the wiffle ball days. Shalhevet has changed a lot in the decade since I graduated. The warm, dilapidated building I attended (and occasionally cut classes in) was knocked down; our old outdoor courts were paved over; and the security gate, once a wooden arm that swung up on command, is now a forbidding steel fence. The only faculty holdovers from my era are in the arts department. I might have found it hard to root for the home team if one of those remaining teachers wasn’t my mom.

Backyard battles and recess rumbles were as essential to my Jewish coming of age as any Gemara lesson they made me late for. 

Anyway, the tournament. Despite the school charging admission, and despite the boys final starting at midnight on a Saturday night (the girls tipped at 10:45 p.m.), the gym was packed, coursing with the nervous energy of a couple of hundred spectators. There was a student section bouncing and leading cheers (the best: “Late Start Mon-day!”), very official-looking referees and a live-streamed broadcast of extremely high quality. The gym itself, like the rest of Shalhevet’s facility, sparkled. For this professional basketball writer, it no longer felt like a night off work.

The home team stretched a healthy halftime lead to 16 points in the third quarter, but visiting Frisch chipped away, led by a red-headed lefty who, memorably, was the only boy on the court not wearing a yarmulke. Seemingly taking the entire Shalhevet defense off the dribble, he torched the Firehawks for 20 points, keeping Frisch in the game long enough to make a run in the fourth quarter. In the final minute, he broke a tie with a pair of free throws and sealed the championship with a floater in traffic.

I enjoyed the game immensely — the atmosphere, the competition and even the ending. At the same time, the scene made me a bit skeptical, although I couldn’t quite put a finger on why. Was it that this place cared too much about sports, or somehow cared in the wrong way? Or was it that the school seemed to care about sports as much as the kids did? After all, if the silly, relentless pressure on American kids to succeed in sports could be mitigated at any school, one might think it would be a Jewish one. But it’s not like I wanted that when I was playing. Maybe it was realizing that my own athletic memory-making days were behind me.

If the silly, relentless pressure on American kids to succeed in sports could be mitigated at any school, one might think it would be a Jewish one.  

The wiffle ball came in toward home plate, and Hillel connected with a mighty swing, pulling the ball deep down the third-base line. It hit high off the wall — I’m not sure we’d ever seen one crushed that far — but foul by several feet. No matter. Recess was over. So it was a home run. The sixth graders poured out of the jungle gym and rushed the field, elated. The fifth graders were furious, their protests drowned out by the jubilant elders circling them. We mobbed Hillel as he ran the bases.

Wouldn’t it have been nice, my old classmate remarked, if we’d had a gym like this when we went here? The hardwood was waxy and gorgeous, the walls decorated with colorful handmade signs toasting the home team. Brand new scoreboards hung on the wall behind each basket. The backboards had shot clocks. 

If I sound like a crank, so be it: Back in my day, we played on double-rimmed hoops with chain nets, and when the game was over, you had to wash the soot off your hands. Yeah, it would have been nice to have a gym, but then it would have been a different high school, and I would have had a different memory.

Louis Keene is a writer living in Los Angeles. He’s on Twitter at @thislouis.