On a cold night in early February, greater Philadelphia’s Akiba Hebrew Academy girls basketball team was struggling as it battled longtime rival Kimberton Waldorf School for first place of the Tri-County League.
But then Miriam “Memmie” Lindemann got hot.
A 5-foot-5 shooting guard, Lindemann stood with the ball at the top of the key, 20 feet from the net, and called out a play. Seconds later, she shook her head, changed the play, drove to the hoop and laid it in over a Kimberton player who stood 10 inches taller. Minutes later, Lindemann fired away from a few feet beyond the three-point line and hit nothing but net. The lead was 13, and Akiba was on the way to a school-record 25th victory of the season.
It was what has become a typical turn of events for the Philadelphia-area Jewish high school and its star senior. Lindemann, Akiba’s all-time leading scorer, has led the Lady Cougars to a record of 33 wins and 4 losses, and a spot in the title games of the Tri-County League and the Penn-Jersey League.
While Akiba was highly favored to win the Tri-County final February 26, the Cougars will be attempting to avenge their last loss when they host Life Center Academy in the Penn-Jersey championship March 2.
The team’s unprecedented success marks a radical four-year turnaround led by Lindemann and the team’s coach, Dan Marsh, who both arrived at Akiba in 2000. In their first season together, the team went 10-10. Now, in Lindemann’s final season at Akiba, the Cougars are poised to win a pair of titles.
While this duo certainly deserves a large share of the credit, in many ways the record-setting Cougars can be viewed as an extension of a pulpit rabbi and a college coaching legend.
Marsh learned about basketball and life while serving as the student manager of the men’s basketball team at Temple University, under legendary coach John Chaney. “He really helped me become the man that I am today,” Marsh said, “both in life and in coaching.”
Lindemann learned about basketball and life from her brothers and her father, Rabbi Steven Lindemann, leader of Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative synagogue in nearby Cherry Hill, N.J. Two of her older brothers played basketball, and they didn’t ease up when shooting hoops with their kid sister. “They played very physical,” Lindemann recalled.
When he can, Rabbi Lindemann comes to see his daughter play. “He watches very carefully,” Lindemann said. “He always has something to say after the game, good and bad.”
Lindemann hopes next year to become the first Akiba alumna to play college basketball, and her parents have been supportive, even with the knowledge that she might end up having to play some games on the Sabbath. “They see how much I love basketball. They know it’s my life, practically, so I don’t think they’d mind. Maybe if I light the candles beforehand,” she said, laughing.
Lindemann averages about 20 points a game and has attracted interest from some Division III schools, including her first choice: Ithaca College.
Lindemann is Akiba’s best player, but they’re by no means a one-woman team. Ariel Goldstein was a member of the gold-medal-winning Philadelphia team at the recent Pan Am Maccabi youth games in Chile; Samantha Cramer competes outside of school in the elite AAU basketball league; Jodi Raab plays the point and can knock down a three-point shot. Together, they play a swarming defense that has sparked Akiba to 30-plus wins, a remarkable achievement for a high school girls team that had never before won even 20 games in a season.
Over the years, Akiba’s boys basketball teams have won their share of league championships. The girls team, on the other hand, has remained under the radar for about 15 years, with the exception of the 1992-93 season, when they made headlines. But that time the attention focused not on their playing, but their coach: former NBA player Joe Bryant, whose son Kobe Bryant would become a Los Angeles Lakers superstar. (Please see sidebar.)
Last year, Akiba was 17-12. This year, they’ve taken their game to the next level. Among their conquests were two schools in Philadelphia’s Public League — Strawberry Mansion and Martin Luther King — with significantly larger student bodies and much taller players. (Akiba’s tallest girl is only 5-10.) But their most important challenge yet will be on March 2, in the Penn-Jersey title game against Life Center. The two schools have split a pair of games this year, with each school winning on its home court.
Akiba won the first matchup by 18 points. But in their second confrontation, a tense, physical game on February 3, Life Center handed Akiba its first loss in two months. “It’s the first time all year we didn’t handle adversity well,” Marsh recalls.
In the championship, as in every game, the keys for Akiba will be focus and execution.
“We don’t think about the other team. If we run our offenses, if we play our defenses, we’re fine,” Lindemann said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing or where we’re playing.”
It’s often said that players echo the words and beliefs of great coaches. When Dan Marsh heard Memmie Lindemann speak of the team’s philosophy, he flashed back to John Chaney and smiled: “That sounds like a Temple player.”
Rob Charry, a 1971 Akiba graduate, is a sports reporter and talk show host on WIP Radio in Philadelphia.