Remember the famous line — “Do you believe in Miracles?” — from the US victory over the Soviet Union in 1980? Well, a modern day sports miracle is currently underway in New York, but instead of an ice rink in Lake Placid, it’s on a hardwood court in Washington Heights. The miraculous presence isn’t oil burning bright but the brilliant play and blazing success of the Yeshiva University Maccabees basketball team.
Yeshiva University — YU to us New Yorkers — is a small school established in 1886 on the Lower East Side and known for its rigorous academic standards and emphasis on a Modern Orthodox curriculum. It offers a variety of highly-respected graduate programs, including Talmudic Studies, a medical school, a law school and a business school. YU boasts illustrious alumni, including Chaim Potok, Herman Wouk, Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, Governor Howard Dean and Eddie Huang.
YU also has the hottest basketball team in America.
YU – "a school that’s better known for producing rabbis than power forwards" – is on a 46-game winning streak and last week became the top ranked team in Division 3. With 424 basketball programs, D3 is the largest division level in the NCAA. The Macs have attracted national attention as people realize that these kippah-clad boys can really hoop.
All YU players arrive at 6:00 am for practice and then go to morning minyan before classes begin. At first blush, their home court resembles a high school gym. But don’t let the venue fool you — the Macs are a sight to behold. Games start with the players lining up for both the national anthem and Hatikva. Once the buzzer goes off, the Macs are off and running. Their up-tempo style combines crisp passing and deadly shooting. They exhibit stellar sportsmanship, whether the game is tight or, as is more often the case these days, lopsided.
YU has players who could have played at D1 programs but chose YU because of its religious curriculum. One of them is the best player in the league: Ryan Turrell, a 6’7” power forward who leads the team with 28.6 points per game. Last month, with their team missing two starters and facing a deficit at halftime, the MVP frontrunner took over and finished with a school-record 51 points. Ryan is a legitimate prospect to become the first Orthodox Jewish player in the NBA.
Gabe Leifer, a 6'6" 5th year player, was a Yeshiva high school standout in Lawrence, New York. Now in addition to averaging 9 points and 10 rebounds per game, he is newly married, pursuing his MBA and working full-time at PWC Worldwide.
My love affair with YU basketball goes back at least a decade to when they were rarely a contender in their Skyline Conference. I have a bond with several people associated with the team. My son has come to know a few of the players, including Ryan Turell and his brother Jack, who were at his bar mitzvah along with Ofek Reef, who joined the team from Yavneh Academy in Dallas and El Paso previously. These are good guys who just happen to be dazzling basketball players. Suddenly, they are getting national attention and yet are completely unfazed by it.
For me, attending a YU game is memorable in ways no other sporting event is. The price of admission is free, but the experience is priceless. And where else in NYC can you get free parking?
YU coach Elliot Steinmetz succeeded Jonathan Halpert in 2014 after his 42 years at the helm. Coach Halpert holds the record for longest tenured men’s college basketball coach in New York City history. Among the 300 players he coached, three were sons of former players. (Halpert’s son joined the coaching staff in 2012; none of his 18 grandchildren are as yet affiliated with the program.)
Coach Halpert led the Macs to 15 consecutive winning seasons — 87-88 to 01-02 — and YU finished 7-18 his final year before passing the rock to Coach Steinmetz.
Steinmetz, who played for YU from 1999-2002, led his team to the Skyline Conference Championships each of his first six years at the helm. In 2017-18, the Macs captured the first Skyline title and NCAA Tournament bid in program history in 2017-18. (Steinmetz’s son Jacob throws a 95+mph fastball; the Orthodox Yeshiva graduate was selected by the Arizona Diamondbacks in July.)
So lots of Jewish athletic pride and much to be thankful for. Jewish or otherwise, I think we can all relate to and root for an underdog. And all those from faith-based communities can appreciate the way these young men adhere to their religious commitment and wear their faith and on their sleeve (or jersey).
If you are looking for a new team to rally behind or restore your love of the game, there’s never been a better time to back the Macs.
Follow live streaming and all the latest YU Mac action at macslive.com.