Philly players and coach will be part of Team USA’s Maccabi 16-and-under basketball team in Berlin in July.
They’re playing where?
The thought of thousands of Jewish athletes descending upon Germany — where millions of the ancestors they never knew were slaughtered by the Nazis and 11 Israelis were murdered by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Munich Olympics — would have seemed unimaginable not that many years ago.
And while those lost lives have never been forgotten, times have changed: Relations are strong between Germany and Israel, and an estimated 240,000 Jews now call Germany their home.
Now, nearly 3,000 Jews, including 190 Americans and a handful of local athletes, will convene in Berlin from July 27 to Aug. 5, for the European Maccabi Games. They will be coming from 30 countries, including from across Europe, Canada, Mexico and Australia, to compete in divisions for Juniors and Youth (15-17), Open (18-35) and Masters (35 and up), including an 84-year-old golfer.
Among them will be the 12 players of Team USA’s Maccabi 16-and-under basketball team, who are being coached by a local resident and who spent last weekend in a three-day combination training camp/getting-to-know-you session at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy.
For kids who only know of Germany and the Holocaust through history books and the movies, it figures to be a memorable experience. “When I heard it was gonna be in Germany, my parents and I were questioning whether or not I should go,’’ said 14-year-old Michael Egozi of Weston, Fla., near Ft. Lauderdale, whose own family history makes him appreciative of what the journey means. “We talked about it and said it would be a great idea. I understand what it means to the Jewish community.’’
Egozi’s great-grandmother left Poland just before the Nazis began to round up the Jews, settling in Cuba. That’s where his grandparents lived until, under Fidel Castro, they were ordered to leave and had to start their lives over from scratch in Florida, Egozi said.
While his new teammates may not have such compelling stories, they’re still aware of the history. “I’m excited,’’ said Daniel Schreier, a 6-foot 7-inch native of Santa Monica, Calif., who, like Egozi, spent the weekend sidelined with an injury.
“It’s the biggest Jewish gathering in Germany since World War II,” he asserted as his teammates were scrimmaging against Barrack’s basketball team. “I’m honored to be part of that to represent my country and my religion.’’
The man molding them all is Brian Schiff, who had no coaching background when he started out as an assistant at Abington Friends School 23 years ago. Through reading books, attending clinics and picking the brains of area coaches, he has compiled an impressive resume. Since taking over the Junior Maccabi team in 1998, he has a spotless 37-0 record in international competition, with six gold medals.
But directions on how to assemble a team with players he’d mostly never seen before last weekend don’t come in any manual. “What I discovered was, it’s a strange kind of process, because there wasn’t a tryout,’’ said the coach known as “Shifty,” who also coaches the local 14-and-under Philadelphia basketball team that competes each year in the JCC Maccabi Games.
“There’s kids applying from all over the country, and you have to go by what their coaches say about them. Everyone sees players differently. Other than four local kids who’d played for me, I’d never seen the other kids before. So I don’t know if they’re good, really good or just OK.”
What he learned during their first gathering here “is that they’re all players. Obviously some are better than others, but everyone is a legit player,’’ said the 61-year-old producer at Comcast SportsNet.
The team will return to Barrack on July 21 for a five-day refresher course, before leaving for Berlin. Opening ceremonies will be held in the same Olympic Stadium where Hitler snubbed gold-medal winning sprinter Jesse Owens at the 1936 Summer Games and used his influence to prevent American sprinters Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller — the U.S. team’s only Jewish Olympians that year — from actually competing on German soil.
By that time, Schiff will have a better idea of how to get the most out of his team. “I know exactly what I want to do and how to do it,’’ he said. “But the key to coaching is, you have to adjust to your talent.
“You can’t come in with preconceived notions, because the players you have might not be able to do that,” he continued. “This team is a great combination of things. We have three real big kids and we have some really good guards. So we have a lot of options.’’
He also has a dozen teenagers who were pretty much strangers before spending the weekend practicing, bonding at dinner, even going to a Phillies’ game.
“I came here not knowing what anyone’s skill was,’’ said Jason Paul of Lafayette Hill who attends Plymouth-Whitemarsh High School. “Not knowing if we were gonna be good or not or where I fit in with the team.”
“But it’s been a lot of fun meeting all new kids. And I think we’re gonna be pretty good,’’ said Paul, who, along with Ambler’s Zach Gelman (Wissahickon), Ardmore’s Sam Rosenberg (Harriton) and Doylestown’s Ari Silverstein (Central Bucks East), represents the local contingent, each paying from $5,800 to $6,800 to participate.
The bottom line for Schiff and his team is playing winning hoops. “Growing up, I never had any interest in going to Germany,’’ said Schiff. “But the more I thought about it, I realized, ‘We’re returning successful, relevant in the world. You tried to get rid of us and couldn’t. Now we’re back.’
“One of the things I’ll tell the kids is they can’t forget what happened there and the reason we’re going is to honor everyone in the past. But once we get there, this is an international sports competition. We’re there to have a great time culturally and socially.
“But for the 40 minutes we play” each game, he added, “it’s all business.’’