By Michael C. Bingham
Special to Shalom New Haven
Air Jordan’s squeak shrilly on the hardwood floor. Defenders trying to foil a pick and-roll bark “Switch!” There’s the sweet swish of a jumper kissing the net, or (more frequently) the clang of a “brick” (a humiliating miss bounding off the rim). Just most like any basketball court in any gym.
What you probably won’t see here: rim-rattling dunks. Now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t behind-the back passes. Stephen Curry clones draining 30-foot threes like it’s, well, nothing.
No, the basketball courts at the JCC of Greater New Haven are different because they’re not just for prodigies or especially gifted players. They’re special because they’re for everyone.
No, really — everyone. You don’t have to be a JCC member to play (day pass is required). You don’t have to be Jewish. You don’t even have to be a good basketball player (although that certainly doesn’t hurt). And everyone plays. The sky walkers share the court with the earthbound. At the youth levels there are strict rules enforcing equal playing time for all players.
The face of JCC basketball, to say nothing of its heart and soul, is Allan Greenberg.He has been with the program for 42 years, dating back to the days when the JCC was on Chapel Street in downtown New Haven.
For decades, “New Haven has been a “crazy basketball city,” said Greenberg. And JCC hoops has been a nexus of that “craziness” dating back to the 1950s.
JCC basketball is for everyone from Biddys (grades K-6) to (at least in basketball terms) veteran players (35 and up). With 140 kids, the JCC K-6 program is one of the largest for that age group in the U.S. Next there’s a middle-school division and a high-school league, the only qualification for which is that players can’t be on an existing high-school varsity roster. Players’ families need not belong to the JCC (the cost of the high school league is $80 for members; $120 for non-members).
The seventh- and eighth-grade teams are coached by David Teitelman, a 55-year-old volunteer who started playing at the old downtown New Haven JCC in 1967 as a kindergartner. He played through high school and in 1979 his team won the national championship for Jewish centers. Teitelman was co-captain of that team.
Teitelman returned to greater New Haven after law school. After the Teitelmans’ first son was born, Greenberg asked him to coach JCC ball. The young lawyer said he would consider it when his son was old enough to play in the middle-school league. Greenberg didn’t forget the promise — and in 2004 Teitelman was back at the JCC. He’s been there ever since.
Today there are two middle-school JCC squads. Both are “travel” teams, which means they play other teams throughout the region (Jewish centers, town travel teams, the occasional private school). Teitelman coaches them both through a 25- to 30-game season — and has done so with singular success.
“I love basketball,” Teitelman said. “I try to stress teamwork. Some kids are a little bit better than others and I try to get them to understand that they need their [lesser-skilled] teammates to be successful. A successful season to me [one in which] the kids learn the game of basketball, and the kids learn to be good teammates with one another.”
One of Teitelman’s players is Liam Nork of Bethany, 14, a rangy eighth-grader who attends Amity Middle School-Bethany and is in his fourth year playing JCC hoops. He’s on the Amity Road court at least three days a week. Compared to his (highly competitive) school team, at the JCC “I learned how to work with a team more here, and they had us doing drills [by position]. People are so welcoming here. I love playing basketball; it’s so stress-relieving,” he said.
Then there are two adult divisions: 18-to-35 (with 12 teams in the most competitive league of the bunch including some former college players), and over-35 (six to eight teams). Few rim-rattlers in that group. (From Biddys to age 69, indeed.) All in all, during the busiest season (winter) some 400 “ballers” young and old play in the JCC’s Beckerman Gym.
One of them is William Douglas, who is sitting on the maple floor taking a blow following a “run” (a full-court, five-on-five pickup game in which the play tends toward the fast and loose. Douglas, 25, lives in nearby Westville and works at Yale-New Hospital. He has been playing ball on Amity Road for seven years.
He describes the level of play among the 18-to-35ers as “decent.” In a recent season, “I was paired with a group of random guys, and we were underdogs [most] every game,” he said. “But we came out, made it to the playoffs and went to the championship game, where we lost by five [points]. I was very upset.”
“It just shows that even if you don’t have all the players that you’re used to playing with [on your team] or all the talent, if you stick together and play hard, you can win games and have fun,” Douglas added — a life lesson that extends well beyond the gym.
What’s different about basketball on Amity Road? “A lot of programs today are built on skill,” said Greenberg. “If you’re good at something — academics, music, whatever — there are tons of opportunities. [Here] we have kids of all levels. And every kid plays.
“The values of the program are sportsmanship, fair play, everybody plays” instead of languishing on the bench. “The emphasis with kids is to make them better people,” Greenberg added, “fair play, camaraderie, friendship. Make them better citizens; make them better people.”
Seldom silent in the gym that businessman and JCC benefactor David Beckerman built for the “new” JCC (it opened in 1993. There are two full-length (94-foot) courts plus side baskets on each allowing four games to be played simultaneously.
Beckerman was a highly successful coach of JCC hoops for many years. You may have heard of him: In his spare time he coached the Hamden Hall boys team, which in January earned him his 500th win. In the remainder of his spare time he founded Starter Sportswear, which he built from a scrappy Elm City start-up maker of high-school sports uniforms to an international brand whose sales reached $356 million in the 1990s. (The Starter brand name was sold in 1999 and Beckerman sold his ownership interest.)
On the Beckerman courts, the values are clear: teamwork, sportsmanship, everyone plays, regardless of skill level — and everyone plays together.
The JCC celebrated their 100 year anniversary a few years back. We had a basketball reunion of former varsity (high school age) players. This program was rich in history and tradition. At a Sunday morning brunch 104 players came as far as California, Texas, Florida and Maine to honor four long time volunteer coaches Author “Red” Kleinberg, Jim Wolfe, Dave Beckerman, and Mark Sklarz . Player and coaches renewed friendships and relived wonderful memories. This is the essence of JCC basketball.