The hardiest stereotype in basketball is that “white men can’t jump.”
If this view needed disproving, a boy’s high school team with an all-Jewish starting five has won the Class AA Illinois state title. The victory, several observers said, hearkens back to a pre-World War II era, when Jewish players dominated the game at all levels.
“We had great team chemistry,” said Dave Weber, coach of the newly crowned champions, who attend Glenbrook North High School in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, Ill. “They kind of grew up together, played together in different leagues and small-fry basketball — you could really see that out on the court.”
The Glenbrook North Spartans won the state championship March 19 by beating Carbondale 63-51 in front of a 10,000-person crowd at Carver Arena in Peoria.
On the same day that Glenbrook North won the title, the top-seeded University of Illinois men’s basketball team, coached by Weber’s brother, Bruce, advanced to the National Collegiate Athletic Association regional semi-finals. Both men have had to coach through grief, after their mother, Dawn, died of a torn aorta at the start of their teams’ respective tournament runs.
Glenbrook North, led by heavily recruited junior scoring sensation Jon Scheyer, senior co-captain Sean Wallis, senior Matt Gold, and juniors Zack Kelly and Jon Radke, won their school’s first state basketball championship. Wallis said that four out of the five starters had bar mitzvah ceremonies. He noted that the team’s first substitute off the bench, Matt Shamis, is also Jewish.
According to Wallis, the team is the first North Shore squad to win a state championship since 1968. They also are the first team in the country with an all-Jewish starting lineup to win a state title since… well, no one is exactly sure.
Sheldon Wallman, editor of the Jewish Sports Review, speculated that it might have happened in the 1940s, but he acknowledges that history is not his specialty. “My guess is that it hasn’t happened in the recent past,” he wrote in an e-mail to the Forward. “[But] put a bunch of Jewish kids who can play in one school, and who knows what might happen. And just did happen.”
Alan Freedman, director of the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame at the Suffolk Y Jewish Community Center in Commack, N.Y., beamed with pride. “That’s amazing,” he said upon hearing of the winning team’s Jewish composition. “I’m happy beyond belief. It’s nice to see Jews making their mark in basketball.”
Jewish sports observers were reveling in a victory that hearkened back to the early decades of the 20th century, when Jews dominated basketball at all levels. Today, there are no Jewish players in the National Basketball Association.
But for members of the Glenbrook North community, the school’s victory might finally overshadow the national disgrace of a videotaped hazing incident that took place in May 2003. The incident led to the expulsion of 30 seniors at the school for pouring urine, paint, animal guts, hair and other muck on juniors before beating them.
Wallis, the team’s captain, chose to look past the controversy, saying that his coach’s personal loss “provided inspiration” for the team “to want to win for him.”
The captain then identified another source of the team’s success.
“My rabbi came to our first game of the playoffs and gave us good vibes,” he said, with a chuckle. According to Wallis’s mother, Linda, Rabbi Daniel Sherbill of Adas Yehuda v’Shoshana gave her son a “rally rock” from Israel to bring to each game.
Coach Weber, who hopes to see the Fighting Illini complete their end of a high school-college family title run, had his own explanation for the team’s success. “We had great team chemistry and great leadership,” the coach said. “And we had fun doing it.”