THE PARENTS OF Ryan Turell, the best player on the team with the longest active winning streak in men’s college basketball, originally wanted their son to attend another school.
They’re sitting on an August Sunday afternoon in the living room of their ranch house in Sherman Oaks, California. Laurel, a personal trainer who appeared in some Jane Fonda exercise videos in the 1980s, and her husband, Brad, a corporate communications executive, are doing what sports parents like to do, which is talk about their offspring.
In this case, the subject of their storytelling is their youngest child, a 6-foot-7 senior guard for the Yeshiva University Maccabees, who’s been getting his fair share of media and pro scouting attention lately. Maybe more than his fair share given that YU, located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, plays in the unheralded Skyline Conference of the NCAA’s third division, along with such hoops juggernauts as Sarah Lawrence College and the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. Several NBA teams have asked Ryan’s head coach for tape, saying they’ll be watching this season. Although he is a long shot for the league by any measure, even this level of interest is extraordinary given that the list of former Division III players currently in the NBA starts and ends with the Heat’s Duncan Robinson. And he moved up to Division I before going pro.
Yet here now are the Turells talking about their boy’s pro prospects. There’s been little doubt for a while that Ryan could play in Europe or Israel, but the NBA musings are relatively recent. Laurel, the daughter of Southern Baptist evangelical singers, thinks providence may have played a small part in this fairy tale, but that’s a story for later. At the moment, she and Brad are explaining Ryan’s decision to bet his lifelong professional basketball dreams on a school better known for training rabbis, social workers, lawyers and doctors. Despite eldest child Jack’s positive experience studying and playing at Yeshiva, the family had greater expectations for Ryan.
“He got offers from D-I schools,” says Brad, who averaged 1.8 points per game as a guard for UC Santa Barbara in the 1970s. “Really good programs in the Big West, Mountain West, Big Sky, Ivy League. Even a couple service academies. At one point we thought he’d go to West Point.”
That would have pleased Laurel, whose father was a colonel in the Army. So, when Ryan told his parents late in his senior year that he preferred to attend his brother’s alma mater, both were surprised. “I said, ‘Why in the world would you want to go to Yeshiva?'” Brad recalls. “And Ryan said, ‘Why in the world did you send me to Valley Torah High School?'”
Ryan, a moon-faced 22-year-old with flowing blond hair, nods and smiles at a story he’s obviously heard before.
“And Emek,” he adds, referring to nearby Emek Hebrew Academy, where he attended elementary and junior high school.
“If you hear someone yelling really loudly when Ryan is playing, it’s me,” says Laurel Turell. Jessie Wardarski/AP Photo
The young man’s point is that he grew up in a household with twin focuses: basketball and Judaism. Brad, who as a kid played against future NBA star Kiki VanDeWeghe and later did public relations for him, hired dribbling and shooting coaches for both his sons when Ryan was in kindergarten. (Daughter Austin, the middle Turell child, had other passions.) As for the choice of their kids’ education: Brad, who was born Jewish and raised in the Reform tradition, started studying with an Orthodox rabbi in his late 20s, intending only to learn more about his religion. Laurel, who moved to L.A. from Texas and was dating Brad, started down a path to conversion after meeting his teacher. They became Orthodox together.
Ryan says he gave serious thought to the Division I free rides he was offered before opting to ask his parents to pay $50,000 a year for him to study marketing and play ball at Yeshiva. By choosing Yeshiva, though, he wasn’t abandoning his dream of being the first Orthodox Jew in the NBA. Rather, he was leaning into it. “I want to show kids like me it could be done,” Ryan says. “I want to be a Jewish sports hero.”
Flight attendant: “Would you like something to read?”
Passenger: “Do you have anything light?”
Flight attendant: “How about this leaflet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends?”
A defining (if minor) act of heroism during Yeshiva’s historic 36-game winning streak didn’t involve Ryan Turell, but rather the Maccabees’ other multiple-time Division III All-American, Gabriel Leifer. Playing early this past March in West Hartford against the University of Saint Joseph — coached by the legendary Jim Calhoun — Yeshiva was trailing in the second half when Leifer decided to do something he’d never done before: take a charge. “I was worried I might look stupid,” says the 6-6 Leifer, a fifth-year forward. “But I thought, ‘The team needs a spark.'” Leifer stepped in front of a driving Tyree Mitchell, drawing a foul. “Everyone on the bench was so excited. ‘Gabe took a charge!'”
Yeshiva cruised to a 71-62 victory, its 35th in a row. “Gabe sent this energy to the team that made it impossible to beat us,” recalls Turell, who led the team with 22 points that night. “I think even they knew at that point that the tide had turned and the game was ours.”
It was a quintessential Maccabees moment, even if that name might seem an odd choice for a sports identity to anyone familiar with biblical history. Roughly a century and a half before the birth of Christ, a Jew named Judas Maccabeus lived with his four brothers and their families in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem in what was then an outpost of the Seleucid Empire. The extent to which this separatist clan is remembered today is due to the holiday of Hanukkah, which celebrates a Maccabee revolt against the Seleucids, who restricted Jewish religious practice. That rebellion ended with the “miracle of the oil,” the discovery of Holy Temple lamp oil that should have burned for one day but lasted eight. The Maccabees, though, were almost as disgusted with the Jewish Hellenists, their more assimilationist and secularist co-religionists, because in the family’s view the rank-and-file Jews of the time had become too much like their occupiers.
Gabriel Leifer and the modern-day Maccabees have received a lot of attention of late because a belief persists — despite considerable evidence to the contrary — that standout Jewish athletes are few and far between. Jessie Wardarski/AP Photo
In particular, as recounted in The First Book of Maccabees, the assimilationist Jews were warming to the Hellenists’ notably extreme sporting culture. Gladiator fights, naked wrestling, sacrifices to pagan gods — all were seen as corrupting and later forbidden by Jewish law. “Historically, there’s been a lot of tension between Judaism and sports, especially spectator sports,” says Elianna Yolkut, rabbi-in-residence of lifelong learning at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. Yolkut is co-host of the podcast “Not Your Jewish Mother,” which just released an episode about the intersection of sports and Judaism. “Physical fitness was encouraged,” she says, “but spectator sports, as the rabbis of Talmud understood them, were seen as ‘sitting with the scornful.'” Not big fans of boo-birds, those Talmudists.
Thus, the seeming contradiction in naming a Jewish team after the Maccabees. Except … “Yes, they were essentially anti-sports,” says Yeshiva history professor Jeffrey Gurock. “But that’s not the full story.”
It rarely is. In fact, the tale behind the reclamation of the name Maccabees in Jewish sports — including, among many examples, the Maccabi Tel Aviv hoops powerhouse and the quadrennial global Maccabiah Games — might indirectly help to explain why the winning streak of a Division III school is national news at all. Yeshiva basketball has in recent months been covered by the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN and New York Daily News, among other media outlets.
To put that in perspective, there’s scant if any national focus on the longest active winning streak in all of college hoops, the 45-game run of the women’s basketball team at Hope College, a Division III Christian liberal arts school in Holland, Michigan. (Go Flying Dutch!)
Then again, there is nothing seemingly surprising or novel about successful Christian athletes. But even today, the idea of Jewish athletic prowess strikes many as curious or unusual, if not laughable. The topic has certainly been fodder for pop culture humor (see the above-referenced “Airplane!” scene for one oft-quoted example). Regular culture, too. None other than Sigmund Freud noted (in “Moses and Monotheism”) that Judaism was incompatible with the “harmonious development of spiritual and bodily activity.” That Freud was Jewish is not a coincidence. Jews have often been first in line to mock Jewish athletes, in movies, television shows, books and podcasts. (The three men who wrote and directed “Airplane!” — brothers David and Jerry Zucker, and Jim Abrahams — are Jewish.)
What’s curious about this trope is its dogged persistence in the face of facts. Jewish athletes have sufficiently represented in the modern era, beginning with multiple medalists in the 1896 Olympics and extending through heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer, Hall of Fame quarterbacks Sid Luckman and Benny Friedman, baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and the swimming icon Mark Spitz. Just this fall, three Jewish ballplayers (Atlanta’s Max Fried and Joc Pederson, Houston’s Alex Bregman) featured prominently in the World Series. The list goes on, like an Adam Sandler Hanukkah song, and includes the presently relevant fact that the first basket of the precursor league to the NBA was scored by Ossie Schectman of the New York Knicks, a Jew. (There’s even a documentary about it, “The First Basket.”) Schectman’s heritage was not especially newsworthy in 1946, partly because nobody much cared about the new Basketball Association of America but mostly because Jews had been a force in the sport for three decades. Gurock recently authored a yet-to-be-published scholarly article about the St. John’s “Wonder Five,” which dominated college basketball in the late 1920s; there were four Jews in the starting lineup.
Despite this success, the idea that Jews might be no worse at sports than any other ethnic or racial group resists acceptance. Which brings us back to the Maccabees and a man named Max Nordau, who is credited as the founder of the Jewish athletic movement in the late 19th century. Nordau was trying to empower his fellow religionists, but he was also railing against the generally negative global image of Jews, which was not that they were bad at sports but something far more complex and, all too often, insidious: at best bookish and weak, more frequently pathetic and sly. This was a reputation centuries in the making, and it didn’t help that at the time much of global Jewry lived in Eastern Europe, victims of pogroms and other deadly terrors that reinforced the idea (later buttressed by the Holocaust) of the feeble Jew.
Nordau, speaking at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898 — which led eventually to the creation of the State of Israel — coined the phrase “Muscular Judaism” and chose the Maccabees of two millennia earlier as his template for the ideal modern Jew. Whether he grasped that the Maccabees were anti-sports is immaterial; they were strong, fierce and Jewish. From then on, the Maccabees became positively associated with sports, at least among Jews. But it was a complex enough transition that Yeshiva athletics, which started in earnest with basketball in 1935 and now includes 15 men’s and women’s teams, assumed the moniker only in the 1970s. (Until then, its teams were known as the “Blue and Whites” or “Mighty Mites.”)
It’s worth noting that Nordau piggybacked his concept of Jewish empowerment on the “Muscular Christianity” movement that had started in England a few decades earlier to counter a perceived moral rot throughout the British Empire. (Among its worldwide adherents was the amateur boxer, football fanatic and future U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt.) One of the outgrowths of this influential philosophy was the Young Men’s Christian Association, which survives to this day. And it was, of course, at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts, that in 1891 James Naismith invented the game that the muscular Jews of the Yeshiva University Maccabees now dominate.
YESHIVA WAS RANKED No. 2 in the preseason poll of D3sports.com (behind Randolph-Macon, which is riding its own 17-game winning streak). But the Maccabees might not be on any radar screens if former YU athletic director Joe Bednarsh had had his way. Bednarsh, now associate dean of students at Yeshiva, didn’t originally want to hire head coach Elliot Steinmetz.
“It’s a cute story,” Bednarsh says over Zoom, a small accommodation to an ongoing pandemic that has played a role in the quirky nature of Yeshiva’s streak, which spans two seasons but does not include a national title. After losing the first game of the 2019-20 season, the Macs reeled off 29 wins in a row and reached the Sweet 16 before the Little Big Dance was canceled because of COVID-19. Last season, YU won seven more games in a virus-truncated campaign.
“I didn’t even want to bring him in when we first talked to him,” Bednarsh recalls of a spring 2014 phone interview with Steinmetz, who was coaching at a Jewish high school on Long Island. “He didn’t do well on the hiring committee screening call. He obviously had an agenda, and instead of answering the questions I asked, he kept pivoting to the things he wanted to talk about. I thought that was a bad sign. I can say now that I was woefully, embarrassingly wrong. He was trying to share his vision, and I didn’t get it.”
Bednarsh says Steinmetz impressed in person, but considering the audacity of the coach’s vision — YU winning its first conference championship, YU competing for a national title — the administrator can be forgiven for being obtuse. Before Steinmetz arrived, the Maccabees’ previous winning season was in 2006-07. Steinmetz, then and now a full-time real estate lawyer and part-time basketball coach, got the job by upending Yeshiva’s understanding of its athletic self. “People saw YU recruiting as a disadvantage,” Steinmetz, 41, says of the relatively small number of Jews who comprise the school’s effective basketball recruiting pool. “I saw it as a possible advantage. These kids are unique.”
Elliot Steinmetz had a vision to expand the Yeshiva recruiting pool and to convince the most talented Orthodox players to “stay home” and play rather than go Division I and sit on a bench. Jessie Wardarski/AP Photo
One doesn’t technically have to be Jewish to attend Yeshiva, which got its start as a Jewish elementary school in the 1880s, morphed into a rabbinical seminary a decade later, and became an accredited college in 1928. That said, few aside from committed Jews would agree to undertake its dual curriculum of secular and religious studies, the latter requiring a functional knowledge of Hebrew and, in some classes, Aramaic. Even for most Jews, the workload and religious obligations are unappealing and even archaic. Some non-observant Jews attend the college — and many secular Jews and students of all faiths attend YU’s strong graduate schools — but most undergrads have been religiously observant to a degree. That drains an already shallow recruiting pool.
Further, Yeshiva’s subordination of athletics to almost everything else is unusual, even for a Division III school. “There’s no pressure from boosters on coaches,” athletic director Greg Fox says. “There’s no pressure from coaches on professors or admissions. Zero. Student-athletes are expected to fulfill both their undergraduate Torah studies and general studies class requirements.” Practice on most days is at 6 a.m., before morning prayer services. The result is a team of players who present as notably thoughtful and balanced, sometimes to an almost unbelievable extreme. Leifer, who’s all of 22, is gearing up for his final season while navigating the demands of his second year of marriage, his first year of grad school and the early months of a full-time job as a real estate tax associate for the global consulting giant PwC. “A scouting report on me would be something like, ‘Slow but methodical,'” Leifer says. “That’s me in general. I get whatever needs doing done.”
Kevin Spann, who coached rival St. Joseph’s College-Long Island from 2014 to 2019, noticed a different demeanor across the Maccabees’ roster. “Yeshiva’s guys are more mature than the average kid in college ball,” says Spann, who played guard for LIU Post (formerly C.W. Post). “My guys seemed like they were just weeks past prom, but Elliot had adult men who enjoyed basketball, and were good at it, but who played with a sense of liberation because it was not the only thing in their lives. They were also much harder to scout because Elliot gets players from all over the place.”
That’s the thing about YU’s recruiting pool; it may be small, but it’s national, even global. While most teams in the Skyline Conference draw predominantly from the Northeast, Steinmetz sees world Jewry as his territory. (YU’s roster for this season includes players from California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Israel.) As a prep coach, Steinmetz saw that Orthodox kids from Jewish high schools who could play at a high level were choosing Division I programs but then mostly riding the bench. He had actually played for YU at the same time Tamir Goodman, aka “The Jewish Jordan,” was garnering intense scrutiny. Goodman, who was Orthodox, was ranked as the 25th-best prep player in the country as an 11th-grader at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore. He passed on an offer from Maryland after run-ins with the coaching staff, including conflicts over how they would have him handle the team’s schedule, which included activities forbidden on the Sabbath. (The Skyline Conference accommodates the Maccabees’ scheduling needs.) Goodman eventually accepted a scholarship from Division I Towson University, but headed to Israel to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv within two years.
“A scouting report on me would be something like, ‘Slow but methodical.’ That’s me in general. I get whatever needs doing done.” Gabriel Leifer
Steinmetz knew all the obstacles and saw opportunity. “I thought if I could get top-level Orthodox kids to ‘stay home,’ we could build something great,” says the coach, whose team hasn’t had a losing season since he took over, winning 69% of its games. “Maybe even attract non-Orthodox kids because of the quality of basketball being played.” He recruited aggressively at Jewish high schools around the country and at YU’s annual Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament, the most important competition for that group. (Sarachek, who coached at YU for decades, was a mentor to Hall of Fame Knicks coach Red Holzman and St. John’s legend Lou Carnesecca.)
Steinmetz’s recruiting style is quiet and cerebral. “He came up to me after a big win in my senior year,” Leifer recalls. “He asked what I thought was the best part of my game. I started going through things. ‘I’m a big guy who can shoot 3s.’ Nothing. ‘I can take it to the hoop.’ No response. ‘I can post up.’ He says, ‘No, take another guess,’ at which point I’m like, ‘Please, just tell me.’ And he says, ‘It’s the way you see the court.’ Later, at my first practice with him, he asked if I remembered what he said was my best asset. Of course I did.” Leifer has averaged nearly six assists per game in his career at YU.
The fifth-year starter also had interest from schools in larger conferences. “We see recruiting as a progression,” says Steinmetz, whose son Jacob became the first known practicing Orthodox Jewish player drafted by an MLB team when the Diamondbacks chose him in the third round this past summer. “If you keep bringing in better players, the players you bring in keep getting better. Until at some point you get a once-in-a-generation talent.”
A DECADE OR so ago, Brad Turell drove to the home of his old friend and client Kiki VanDeWeghe, who had recently moved back to Encino, California, from New York. Turell wanted the two-time NBA All-Star to run Turell’s 15-year-old son Jack, a budding prep player, through his paces. Jack’s little brother, 11-year-old Ryan, tagged along as usual. VanDeWeghe, who averaged 19.7 PPG in his 13-year career, worked out both boys for an hour, and when they were through, he pulled Brad aside. Motioning to Ryan, he said, “He’s the one to keep an eye on.”
“You could see then that he was something special,” VanDeWeghe says. It’s an assessment he maintains today, to the extent he can. For eight years the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations, VanDeWeghe recently transitioned to an executive advisory role with the league. “I have to be careful talking about a college player, even if his dad is my friend. But Ryan can do a lot of things well, particularly shoot.”
There’s a fair amount of video online featuring Yeshiva basketball and Turell, but it’s difficult to judge his prospects from them, given his clear physical and skills advantages over most of the competition. He’s simply taller, quicker and more court-aware. A better indicator of his potential is the success he’s had back home, in pickup runs and summer games against Division I players and even some pros. “I’ve got friends in L.A. telling me he’s got the skills,” says Yeshiva assistant coach Michael Sweetney, a first-round pick of the Knicks in 2003 who spent four years in the league. “NBA and WNBA players. They know what’s real and what isn’t.”
Is Turell real NBA material? That’s tough to know — and skepticism is always warranted in such discussions — but Turell averaged 26 PPG for Yeshiva last season, hitting 42% of his 3s. His shooting in that COVID-interrupted tournament in 2020 definitely raised eyebrows, more than anyone might have expected. This is where Laurel Turell thinks providence intervened. YU’s early-round Friday afternoon game on March 6 against Worcester Polytechnic Institute would not normally have attracted NBA executives, but it was one of the first games, college or pro, in the first days of the pandemic to be played in front of empty stands. As a result, the pros were told to watch the livestream to see what it might be like if the league went down that path too. What the folks tuning in saw was an offensive explosion. Turell scored 41 points, on 13-of-16 shooting, 7-for-9 from the arc. “Ryan Turell had one of the best performances I’ve seen over the past few years in Division III basketball,” WPI’s coach, Chris Bartley, said after YU’s 102-78 win.
Ryan Turell, left, and his brother Jack, who also played at Yeshiva, worked with dribbling and shooting coaches from the time they were kids in a household with two focuses: basketball and Judaism. Courtesy Turell family
It was typical Turell and a predictable Yeshiva performance, which is to say unpredictable to the extreme. With no set offensive plays or court positions on offense — “We don’t have rules,” Steinmetz says, “we have concepts” — players set screens and make cuts at a fast pace, frustrating opponents while rewarding screen-setters with open looks. “In most offenses,” Steinmetz says, “everything is focused around the ball; you bring the action to it. If you have a guard who’s dribbling, you bring him a screen, and he’s going to decide what happens next, whether he’s going to go to the basket or pull up or kick it. We don’t do that. We bring the ball to the action. We haven’t run more than a handful of ball screens in the past four years.”
Steinmetz has enormous confidence in his approach. In that game last season against Saint Joseph when Leifer took his first charge, YU was down at the half and not playing well. “Most coaches would have been yelling at halftime,” Turell recalls. “But Elliot was like, ‘OK, listen, they threw their punch, we’re gonna throw a punch back. We just have to run our stuff, and it will be fine.'” Trailing by eight, Yeshiva won by nine. In contrast to the energy he demands on the court, the coach presents as the Rosenberg & Steinmetz law firm partner he is. “He’s the calmest coach I’ve ever played for,” Turell says.
There’s a 25-minute video on a YouTube channel called “Slappin’ Glass” that actually uses the Maccabees to explain the motion offense. Essentially, the Macs operate a modified version of what Bobby Knight ran at Indiana back in the day, which was itself a version of what Hank Iba invented at Oklahoma A&M back even further. In every iteration, it’s an approach that requires committed coaches who like to teach and athletic players adept at learning. “It’s not simple,” Steinmetz says, “but if you have smart kids, it’s easy to run.”
And far less easy to defend, because the majority of basketball players the world over are taught to keep one eye on the person they’re guarding and the other on the ball. There’s no third eye for the guy who just set a screen you’re about to run into. “With most opponents, the guy with the ball is the danger,” Spann says. “With Yeshiva, it’s the four guys without the ball, because they work so well to get great shots.”
Or, as Ofek Reef, a 6-1 junior guard for YU, puts it: “We have no clue what we’re going to do, so it’s very hard for defenses to figure it out.”
If Turell is the Orthodox prospect with Division I talent who “stayed home,” Reef is another kind of player Steinmetz had in mind in his recruitment progression. A self-described “dog” of a defender from Plano, Texas — “If I’m on you, I promise you are not going to like it” — Reef was raised in a non-observant family from Israel and knew little about Yeshiva. “Elliot told me, ‘Look, you can go to a D-I program and sit on a bench until you’re a junior, or you can come here and play 25 to 30 minutes as a freshman.'” Reef came, was named the Skyline’s Rookie of the Year, and now brags of being in the second-highest level of Judaic studies. “It’s not like I’m suddenly Orthodox,” says Reef, who sports multiple tattoos, which are forbidden in traditional Judaism. “But you learn to respect other people’s choices, and they respect yours. It’s one of those off-the-court things that translates into a positive on the court.”
And a very long string of W’s.
JUDAISM IS A religion of streaks. According to tradition, Jews have been circumcising their 8-day-old sons for more than 3,000 years. According to written accounts, they’ve been chanting the Torah in synagogues weekly since at least 2,500 B.C.E. Even smaller observances — the lighting of Hanukkah candles for eight straight nights, the counting of the 49 days of the Omer starting on the second day of Passover, the daily recitation of the Kaddish prayer for 11 months after the death of a parent — are freighted with the pressure of continuity.
So it’s interesting to observe the studied nonchalance affected by the people associated with Yeshiva’s news-making winning streak.
Turell: “It’s cool and all, but at the end of the day, it would be cooler to be national champs.”
Leifer: “It’s a 7 on a scale of 1-10: nice to be recognized, but not a goal we’ve been aiming for.”
Reef: “It was good during COVID when we didn’t have anything else to play for, but now we’re only thinking about a national title.”
Steinmetz: “Not really thinking about it.”
The Yeshiva players have been quick to share the credit as the wins — 36 and counting — have piled up. Will Newton for The Washington Post/Getty Images
Of course, fans generally are of two minds about streaks. For a paper published last year in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” — “The streaking star effect: Why people want superior performance by individuals to continue more than identical performance by groups” — Jesse Walker, a marketing professor at Ohio State, and Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell, conducted nine studies involving more than 2,600 people. As the title suggests, streaks by individual athletes seem to be far more compelling than those by teams. (If that doesn’t ring true, ask 10 baseball fans which player holds the longest consecutive-game hitting streak in MLB history. Then, after they reference Joe DiMaggio, ask which team holds baseball’s longest consecutive-game winning streak. When they can’t answer, you can tell them the New York Giants — controversially — won 26 straight in 1916.)
Walker and Gilovich’s research included dominant performances in sports, business and other spheres. Their results revealed that observers generally credited the success streaks of athletes (or, say, CEOs) to the individuals themselves, while ascribing the success of teams (or companies) to various situational factors. “It’s a lot easier to make connections between individuals and results than it is with teams,” Gilovich says. “We know where to give the credit, or at least we think we do.”
Credit attribution likely plays a strong role in winning streaks and may in some ways explain the ineffable but persistent idea of team chemistry. In a 2019 study published in “Nature Human Behaviour” — “Prior shared success predicts victory in team competitions” — a team of researchers led by Northwestern postdoctoral fellow Satyam Mukherjee contend that “previous relations and shared experiences among team members … significantly improves the odds of team winning in all sports beyond the talent of individuals.” [Italics mine.] That is to say, objectively gifted players are certainly a necessary ingredient for any sustained run of success, but they aren’t enough. (Just ask any Kentucky hoops fan.) You need relationships. Mukherjee and his team — who analyzed historical records and rosters from the NBA, MLB, EPL and IPL (Indian cricket) — suggest such ties “improve mutual understanding of individual habits, techniques and abilities and therefore enhance team coordination and strategy.”
“We have no clue what we’re going to do, so it’s very hard for defenses to figure it out.” Ofek Reef
Turell is a believer. “We had a game against Fairleigh Dickinson a few seasons ago,” he recalls. “We were down one at the end and Gabe was open, but I took the shot and missed. We lost. The next season, against Sarah Lawrence, there was a similar situation at the end — we were down by one — but this time I passed to Gabe, who hit a 3 and we won. I always want the ball when it counts, but I also knew Gabe. I knew what he’s capable of.”
Steinmetz thinks shared culture also factors into the Maccabees’ success, given the relative homogeneity of team members. “These guys come from similar backgrounds, enough of them,” he says. “Just the fact that they have this common Jewish background, and have pride in it, makes a difference.”
Something else may be at work, too. David Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College, author of a widely assigned introduction to the subject (“Psychology,” now in its 13th edition). It’s somewhat unusual for an academic from such a small school to have an outsized impact in such a broad topic. More unusual still is that Myers teaches at the school with the longest winning streak in all of college basketball, men or women. Myers, a sports fan, is no stranger at the Hope women’s games, so he’s given some thought to streaking teams. While discussing the shared-success study, he noted a psychological bias known as the “self-serving attribution.” This phenomenon leads people to credit themselves when something goes right and to blame others when it doesn’t. On losing sports teams, that tendency can lead to pointing fingers at, say, referees or the weather or other teammates. On winning teams, though, the “self” is plural, “we” as opposed to “me,” and credit is spread around. Yeshiva’s players, who can be tongue-tied when asked to describe their own abilities, are chatterboxes when listing those of their teammates. “Working together towards a shared goal is a powerful unifying factor,” Myers explains. “It builds trust, especially when you’re successful.”
Trust may be the aspect of team chemistry most responsible for victory because it helps to maintain cohesion when the going gets rocky. “There’s a sense, even when we’re down, that someone will come through,” says Brian Morehouse, head coach of the Hope women. “It’s easy to give up on yourself when things get hard. It’s easier to have faith if you’re on a team where someone keeps figuring it out.”
Says Reef: “Coach Steinmetz’s system builds confidence. Honestly, I don’t think we’ve ever been in a panic as a team. We believe that if we run our stuff correctly, nobody can stay with us.”
The Maccabees will be unveiling the 2021-22 version of their vaunted (and noisy) motion offense on Saturday night. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz for ESPN
ON A MILD Thursday night in mid-October, the Maccabees are running through their paces in the first official practice of the 2021-22 season. It’s a Midnight Madness season kickoff with very little madness. There are no fans in attendance, owing to the pandemic. (They’ll be allowed at games.)
Steinmetz spends most of the 90-minute session introducing motion-offense concepts to the new guys. One of them is Jordan Armstrong, who played three years at Oberlin College. He’s a likely starter for Yeshiva, who will make an already big-for-the-division team even bigger. Armstrong, who is in his first year of grad school at YU’s Katz School of Science & Health, is another example of the kind of athlete who might not have given a second thought to playing for YU before Steinmetz arrived. In fact, he did, for a hot second, consider attending Yeshiva as an undergrad, but “the dual curriculum was not what I was looking for.” Now, though, he’s excited to be part of a basketball force. “If we win our opener, I’m not going to claim ownership of a 37-game streak,” he says. “But the chance to chase a national title is exciting.”
Armstrong and the rest of the players run various drills, most involving screens, cuts and curls. The absence of formal plays requires a lot of on-court communication. Whenever a player sets a screen, he raises a fist and also calls out the name of the teammate he’s trying to free up. Steinmetz is a stickler for the habit, especially in practice but also in games. “You have to have a certain level of confidence to communicate so much on the court,” says Spann, who left coaching to work on business projects with Sixers guard Danny Green. “It can be intimidating.”
The basketball in the Max Stern Athletic Center in Washington Heights this evening is far from intimidating — there’s a sense of genuine joy to be playing ball again — but every so often, Turell throws down a dunk or drains a 3 from 30 feet with barely a shimmy of net strings, and the season’s promise comes into focus. No one mentions the prospect of a 37th consecutive win when the first game that counts tips off Saturday evening at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. “We don’t want to go out like Gonzaga did,” Reef says. “If we lose five or six games this year but win a national championship, no one will care about the streak.”