That’s what comes to mind when Brian Schiff thinks of Marty Riger.
It’s not only because of the relationship they forged over the years with Maccabi basketball. It’s also because of the design of a play that Riger drummed into his head which was filled with a myriad of options.
Rather than trying to explain how it worked, the man everyone calls “Shifty” took a reporter’s notebook and proceeded to draw a series of lines enveloped around the circle of the lane. He said that when you look at it closely, it resembles a smile.
Yet, at the same time, he sheds a tear, since he lost his friend and colleague in July 2022 from prostate cancer, a disease Schiff, 70, himself battled — and beat — a decade ago. That’s why he’s so appreciative knowing that he’ll be the recipient of the second Marty Riger Outstanding Jewish Coach of the Year Award, which will be presented by the Jewish Sports Heritage Association on April 7 at Temple Israel in Lawrence, New York.
“I met him the first time I ever did JCC Maccabi in 1992 when I was a hanger on,” recalled Schiff, winner of 22 medals — 15 gold, six silver and a bronze — during his illustrious career coaching for both Maccabi USA and Maccabi Philadelphia. “He was the coach of the Suffolk, Long Island, team which won the gold medal.
“He was a great guy, very inviting and always shared his knowledge. He emphasized being organized, being calm and trusting your players. I knew practically nothing of the organized side of basketball. He was like a professor to me.”
The “professor” taught the student well: Schiff took over as coach of the Maccabi USA Junior team in 1999 and produced immediate results. Not only did his teams win on the court, but Schiff made sure his players were winners in life, too.
That’s something else passed on from Riger.
“My dad stood for a lot of things, all of which involved, honesty, integrity, class and dignity,” said Mike Riger, whose father was a three-time Suffolk County Coach of the Year during his 25 years at Brentwood High on Long Island; he also ran the New York Knicks summer camps for 30 years. “Along with being an outstanding strategist, he was always uplifting and positive.
“Given coach Shifty’s status in Maccabi basketball, choosing him for this award makes a lot of sense. He really is Maccabi basketball. He brings his team together and they play hard and are unselfish,” Riger said. “Those are characteristics my dad had in his teams.”
Those are also traits the Jewish Sports Heritage Association, founded in 2014, looked for in selecting the Riger Award recipient.
“We want to honor a Jewish coach, and have known Brian for many years,” association Director Alan Freedman said. “He coached in the Maccabi Games as did Marty. He’s very well known, as was Marty. So, this was a simple decision.”
Among those Schiff coached along the way was Adam Fisher, who’s about to enter his first season as Temple University’s men’s basketball coach. But 25 years ago, Fisher got a rude awakening when he tried out for Schiff’s Maccabi team. He got cut, just like what happened to a precocious North Carolina high school freshman named Michael Jordan.
“He came back the next year more determined,” said Schiff, taking a break from his day job as athletic assistant at Abington Friends School in Jenkintown, where he does everything from lining the fields and handing out uniforms to announcing games and running the shot clock. “He wasn’t a starter, but he became my defensive stopper. He says that experience was what made him want to be a coach.”
Schiff has many stories like that from a career that began as an assistant for Steve Chadwin at Abington Friends School from 1992 through 1999. That paved the way for him to start coaching both the local Maccabi team as well as USA Maccabi. When he finally stepped down in 2018, he had racked up a gaudy 174-28 record, along with all those medals.
That’s earned him entry into the Philadelphia Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, the Philadelphia Maccabi Hall of Fame and among the Heroes and Legends of the Maccabiah, plus a 2017 Emmy Award as associate producer of “Daily News Live” when he worked for Comcast SportsNet (now NBC Sports Philadelphia) for 18 years.
Yet this honor might be the most meaningful.
“It’s very humbling and moving,” said Schiff, who also coaches middle school basketball and girls’ softball at Abington Friends. “Marty was truly someone I looked up to as a mentor and friend. He was so complimentary of my coaching and happy for my success. I’ve been blessed to receive a few awards, but this might be No. 1 because of who he was and what he meant to me.”
That leaves just one question for Shifty. Where’d the name come from?
“I grew up in the Northeast and went to Rhawnhurst JCC,” he replied. “When I played basketball, they started calling me that. I always tell people it’s a name, not a description.”
He was smiling when he said it.
Jon Marks is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.