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‘It’s a bad time to be great:’ An oral history of Yeshiva University’s historic 36-game win streak

The Yeshiva University Maccabees — universally known as the Macs — are riding a 36-game win streak, tied for the second-longest in NCAA Division III history. The streak spans two seasons (so far), the turnover of nearly half the team’s roster, and of course, the coronavirus pandemic that ended their season abruptly last March and shortened this season dramatically.

In a moment when individual excellence in sports by American Jews has become almost commonplace, YU’s streak stands alone as a team achievement. As the yarmulke-sporting ballers globetrotted their way to a No. 3 national ranking, they attracted a Jewish following that transcends geography or denomination.

Starring players who hailed from all over the country and Israel, Yeshiva has flummoxed opponents with a simple motion offense and a selfless ethos. Coach Elliot Steinmetz preached “letters, not numbers,” meaning wins (‘W’s) over stats — a philosophy echoed by every player we interviewed.

With the 2020-21 season over after only seven games — and the winning streak still alive — the Forward spoke to the players and coaches who forever changed the perception of Jewish athletics.

Here’s the story of the Macs’ win streak, in their words.

Yeshiva Maccabees

Yeshiva Maccabees

The undefeated run officially began on November 10, 2019, but it was years in the making. Four of last season’s seniors — Kevin Bokor, Dani Katz, Simcha Halpert, and Tyler Hod — were recruited out of high school by Steinmetz, who sold them on his vision of a dynasty that would change the basketball culture at YU. Those four anchored a roster whose talent got deeper every year.

Kevin Bokor, forward, Class of 2020: I met Elliot when I was a senior. At the time I had no interest in going to YU or playing basketball — I was enrolled at Rutgers. He had this vision — he tried to convince people to get this stereotype of Jewish basketball out of your head. As a player, you just accept that stereotype. You do get those laughs that Jews can’t play ball, that it’s a bunch of scrawny little guys who kind of just get lucky and win games. But it meant nothing to Elliot.

Simcha Halpert, guard, Class of 2020: That was something that really spoke to me. Because I had the same mentality. My whole life, growing up in L.A., I always wore my kippah in games. Even if I didn’t wear it off the court, I enjoyed wearing it on the court, wearing it to LA Fitness even, playing pickup ball with all the guys who had never seen a Jew playing ball before, and watching their amazement and their shock at everything I could do on the court. It’s something I’ve always taken pride in.

Elliot Steinmetz, head coach: I always say that when you’re dreaming of bigger goals, sometimes you’re straddling the line between dreaming and just being stupid. And they were kind of willing to get on that line with me.

Simcha Halpert and Elliot Steinmetz

Simcha Halpert and Elliot Steinmetz Courtesy of facebook

Ryan Turell, guard, Class of 2022: Since I was a freshman in high school, he was recruiting me and telling me the guys he was getting, that he was getting Dani, Simcha, Kevin. And he thinks that by my sophomore year we could be the team that changed history at Yeshiva. I was fully bought in. I skipped my gap year because I knew it would take a year for us to gel.

Ofek Reef, guard, Class of 2023:I didn’t know there was a university called Yeshiva University. I knew what a yeshiva was, in Hebrew, so I was like, ‘Probably not gonna go there.’ But they asked me to come on a visit, and I enjoyed it.

When I came, they played against Brooklyn College. They killed them. I was shocked. I met the guys on the team – met Dani, met Ryan, met Simcha, and they said they had a real chance of being contenders. I decided to go to YU.

Turell: All our big scorers and main players were returning. So, we knew we were special, we just didn’t know how good we could be. It was a season four years in the making.

Eitan Halpert, guard, Class of 2021: We were so talented, from the first player on the bench to the last player on the bench. We were stacked.

The team won the Skyline Conference Championship in 2018 — the sophomore season for Katz, Bokor, Hod, and Simcha Halpert. But the following season, they lost in the Skyline title game, ending a 17-game win streak and cutting their season short just shy of the NCAA tournament.

Going into 2019-20, the Macs were polled as the top team in the Skyline South Division. The team was returning 12 players, including 4 starters. Turell was entering his sophomore season, Reef his freshman year.

The Macs’ first game that season was against Occidental College in Pasadena, California. Yeshiva featured several players from the L.A. area, including Turell and the Halpert brothers, and word spread quickly that the hyped-up YU basketball team was playing Saturday night.

Ryan Turell

Ryan Turell Courtesy of twitter

Eitan Halpert: It felt like homecoming. Every player dreams of a game like that.

Gabriel Leifer, forward, Class of 2020: The whole Jewish community in L.A. came out.

Simcha Halpert: But coming after Shabbat, when everyone’s resting the whole time, it’s very difficult to come out and win a game after that. I remember all the cholent we ate on Saturday.

Reef: Great cholent. The cholent was memorable.

Leifer: We just came out flat.

Simcha Halpert: We looked like a ‘Jew’ team. We looked very Jewish out there.

Turell: It was embarrassing. We came in as this hyped Jewish team, with all these stars from our high school, it was a big deal. And then we laid an egg. Against an opponent we thought we were better than. It felt horrible. In the locker room, it was dead silent.

We kind of needed that punch in the mouth to really get gritty.

Leifer: We understood that we lost to a good team, but we were also much better than that.

Turell: CalTech was our revenge game, our bounceback game. We weren’t losing that game.

The Macs creamed CalTech the next day, won their next six, then beat Farmingdale State, the team that sent them home in the Skyline Conference Championship game the season prior. After their 14th straight win, Yeshiva earned its first NCAA ranking in program history, No. 24 in Division III.

With a 14-1 record, they put their streak and national ranking on the line at Sarah Lawrence College.

With about 30 seconds remaining in the game, Sarah Lawrence hit a running shot in the lane to take a 72-71 lead.

Instead of calling a timeout, Yeshiva inbounded the ball to Turell, who brought the ball past halfcourt as the clock ticked down.

Okef Reef

Ofek Reef Courtesy of twitter

Steinmetz: I generally don’t love to call a timeout in that situation, especially with a team like that, where I think my players are better players than I am a coach.

Katz: We had the ball in the hands of the best player in the country. You know he’s going to make a play. But it wasn’t like they just had to worry about one guy. They had to worry about all of us.

Turell: I was going to go up and take a pull up jumper, go one-on-one against the guy. I saw Gabe running baseline. And I was about to pull up, I saw his man stop, and Gabe [Leifer] kept going.

Steinmetz: He does exactly what we expect him to do, which is read the help, and as soon as that help came, he found the guy in the corner, which was Gabe.

Reef: I was like, Please hit this please hit this please hit this.

Leifer: The second I saw how much space I had, I knew it was going in.

Turell: He buried it. The minute I passed it to him I knew that ball was going in. He’s a big time player, he makes big time shots. That’s what he does.

Reef: I was like, Thank God. That was real prayer.

Leifer’s three-pointer with six seconds left was the winning shot. Final score: Yeshiva 74, Sarah Lawrence 72.

As the streak began to build, Yeshiva started drawing attention from Jews all over the country.

Bokor: Some of these guys were definitely, 100 percent, celebrities on campus. I remember in one class, we were talking about bluetooth headphones in a marketing class. And the teacher goes to Gabe and says, “This is probably something you should use, because you go to the gym a lot, and you lift a lot, so this could be good for you.” And we’re just dying. It’s what happens!

Simcha Halpert: We had barely any fans in the crowd my first two years. Maybe 50 people maximum in the gym. Now everywhere we go, gyms are completely full. Every home game is like a playoff game.

Turell: It was what we envisioned, it was what Steinmetz envisioned when he was recruiting us. This is bigger than basketball.

Leifer: People from Kansas who have no shul or kosher food near them for four hours and have no affiliation with religion and don’t really observe, they’re emailing us saying, “Just so you know, you give us our Jewish pride.”

It became a night activity for people. People started doing birthday parties. There’d be a group of 15 10-year-olds sitting behind the bench, and they would see us. And me, growing up, I was always thinking about Kobe Bryant when I was shooting in my driveway, but we have the opportunity to be role models for these kids, and we hold ourselves to that standard.

Eitan Halpert #15

Eitan Halpert (#15) Image by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Steinmetz: We played at Stevens Tech [in Hoboken, N.J.], and they played Hatikva before the game. On the road, at their gym. Which no one has ever done for us. It was a touching moment, such a classy thing. Here we are in this world, where we’re dealing with hate and bias every day. We have our issues, we go places where we hear things coming out of the stands. And here you have a school that doesn’t just tolerate, but is going out of the way to be inclusive.

Yeshiva won the next 14 games, including the Skyline Championship, bringing the win streak up to 27. Then the Macs were off to Baltimore to play the first two rounds of the NCAA Division III tournament at Johns Hopkins University.

It was March, 2020, and the novel coronavirus was beginning to enter national consciousness.

Bokor: It’s the first time you really play other teams. When you have that [ranking], you have that feeling that ‘oh it’s just a number.’ But then we win in the first round by 30 [Final score was 102-78], and you’re like, whoa. That’s when I really felt above and beyond that I was part of a special, special team.

Simcha: The way the ball was moving, the shots we were taking and the defense we were playing, we were at the top of our game.

Reef: Ryan Turell was huge in those two games. Huge. Everybody came off — Eitan Halpert, Simcha, Dani, Gabe — and did what they were supposed to do. And then we won the second game by, I think, 20 points. [Final score: Yeshiva 102, Penn State Harrisburg 83.] Coach said we need to play every game at Johns Hopkins. Our shooting percentage at that gym was something crazy.

Eitan Halpert: Our whole team was dapping each other up, high fiving, kind of embracing each other, like, Wow, what did we just do? That’s probably my favorite memory.

Katz: We were playing our best basketball, and we felt like we were going to win the Sweet 16, go on to the Elite 8, and contend for a national championship.

In the Sweet 16, Yeshiva would be facing No. 3 Randolph Macon College in Ashland, Virginia — a six hour bus ride away. The game was scheduled for Friday, March 13.

In the week leading up to the game, YU shut down its campus after a student tested positive for coronavirus, and the basketball team went straight from Johns Hopkins to Long Island, hoping to avoid a potential outbreak. The dominos of the pandemic shutdown were tipping toward them.

Reef: We had 10, 15 minutes to run up to the dorm, grab some new clothes, pack it up, and we stayed by some teammates in the Five Towns.

Eitan Halpert: It was tough to get in the gym because everything was starting to close down and no one wanted to be around other people. I think we all knew everything could get canceled – it was in the back of all of our heads. But we were just trying to get through the week.

Gabriel Leifer

Yeshiva’s do-it-all forward Gabriel Leifer (#4) will play a key role in the game. Courtesy of Facebook

Simcha: Honestly, everyone was complaining, but I didn’t mind it so much.

Reef: It was fun. That was the week of Purim, so we did megillah reading together, we did seudah together, all that. That made everyone closer.

Reef: The night before we left, [NBA player] Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID.

Bokor: We were on the bus, about an hour away when we got the news that D-I’s tournament was getting canceled. Ten, 20 minutes later we get the news about D-III.

Leifer: The next exit was our exit to the hotel.

Bokor: I think Tyler stood up, he came over and gave all the seniors a hug.

Katz: It was like, is this real? Is this really happening? We weren’t prepared for that situation. When we got to the hotel, we found out it was true.

Turell: I felt horrible for the seniors. They just found out they’ll never play another game. They’re our leaders and it sucked to see that. We had next year. They didn’t.

Simcha: It’s really hard to put into words how we felt at that moment, just knowing that our season ended on a bus in the middle of Virginia. But it was part of life. In the moment it was hard to see how big of a scale coronavirus was, but looking back now, everyone had something they were looking forward to that was canceled.

I ended up going to Walmart across the street, getting drinks for all the boys, and we all hung out together.

Kevin: We played a lot of Xbox, a lot of Fortnite. We were having the same exact night we would have had, just staying up later because we had a bus ride instead of a game.

Simcha: The next morning we got up and went right back to YU.

Unlike NCAA’s Division I, Division III saw many colleges opt out of the 2020-21 basketball season. YU opted in. But only three teams in the Skyline Conference wanted to play, so the athletic department scheduled games ad hoc and YU played some teams back-to-back.

The Macs were tested for COVID-19 three times a week, and wore masks during practice. They split into two pods for practices and bus rides, so that if one positive case forced one pod to quarantine, the Macs would still have a large enough roster to play. About half of the team’s 18 players — including Leifer, Reef, and Eitan Halpert — tested positive at some point during the pandemic, so it made for an even split.

The Macs finished the 2020-21 season 7-0 and ranked No. 3 in the country. Their first two and last three games of the season were canceled. For the second season in a row, Division III did not crown a national champion.

Steinmetz: It was such a different experience practice-wise. Guys are wearing masks to practice, we’re in pods all the time. And to try to build chemistry, which we excel at, is very hard to do. We didn’t have a full practice with everyone on the team there until mid- to late February.

Eitan: We had one group on one side of the court, the other group on the other side of the court, to try to prevent outbreaks. You don’t even know what the other eight guys on the team do.

Reef: This whole year, I think for all of us, has been mentally and physically draining.

I definitely think it’s been worth it. I think all the fans who follow us would agree on that.

Leifer: It’s a hard year for people. I have grandparents who haven’t really left their apartments. For me to be able to go out and play, even if we’re practicing in masks and even if there’s no fans, it’s a great opportunity. Because I can tell you this: most of America right now is not waking up saying, I get to play basketball today.

Eitan: Just walking into that gym, you feel like you made it.

Last year’s seniors have moved on. Simcha Halpert now plays basketball professionally in Israel. Tyler Hod is studying to become a rabbi. And Dani Katz and Kevin Bokor work for the same healthcare company.

With the streak now at 36, tied for the second-longest in Division III history, the players are reflecting on what they’ve accomplished in two seasons without a tournament and in the years leading up to it.

Eitan: We’re ranked No. 3 now, which is very, very high. I think we should probably be ranked No. 1. I think a lot of people discredit us for being in our conference and the teams we play, even though we go out of our way to play a lot of good teams. The fact that we went to the tournament and blew out two good teams, I think speaks for itself.

Bokor: We probably had three of the best players in YU history, in Gabe, Ryan, and Simcha. But the entire team, top to bottom, was special. The 29 in a row that’s now being built on, will that ever be beaten? Probably not.

Turell: It’s a bad time to be great I guess. Honestly, it’s horrible. It was upsetting to hear other divisions were having a tournament and we weren’t. All we can do right now is keep winning, and hopefully we get one next year.

Reef: I think without having a tournament or being able to win a national championship, the streak has given us something to play for.

Turell: Our whole goal is to win a national championship for the Jewish people and show the world that Jews can play basketball. We want to show kids all over the world that they can go to Yeshiva, stay religious, and still play basketball at a high level.

Steinmetz: To me, I’m not a big trophy guy. I don’t really care for rings or trophies. My kids like them. For me, the goals are always the same: to get better every day, try to win every time you’re out there, and to represent the university and the surrounding Jewish community in a positive way.

Simcha: We have crazy fans now, all over the world. I come to Israel and people here say to me, oh, you were on that Yeshiva team? And Yeshiva is now a legitimate basketball program, which is absolutely absurd. We’re a school of 2,000 boys — it’s a tiny pool. But being a smaller school, it’s like a David and Goliath story every time you go out there and play. I take tremendous pride in it.

Reef: As Jews, we get antisemitism everywhere we go, and I think our way to combat that is to show people how we treat people on the court. If someone on the other team falls, everyone runs over to pick them up, we don’t step over them. If someone gets hurt, we’re running to them after they stand up and asking if they’re okay. We’re showing kids how to leave a legacy on the Jewish people themselves, not just through basketball.

Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

Louis Keene is a writer in Los Angeles. Email him or follow him on Twitter.

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