Close to 400 people squeezed tightly into bleacher seats, found space to sit on the floor or peered down from the balcony. Others stood wherever they could.
On the surface, it appeared to be simply a game between 15- and 16-year-old boys, but this contest between teams from Philadelphia JCCs and the Sid Jacobson JCC in Long Island, N.Y., had a good deal more significance. The boys' basketball championship was the final athletic event of the JCC Maccabi Games, a four-day tournament featuring 2,100 athletes ages 13-16 who traveled out West along with 500 coaches. Hailing from 57 different cities across the United States, Israel, Great Britain, Australia and Canada, players competed in soccer, baseball, basketball, track, in-line hockey, swimming, table tennis, dance, volleyball, bowling, golf and tennis. During the previous week, the rest of the Philadelphia delegation had played in Houston or Baltimore.
For fans gearing up for the hoops finale, there were plenty of reasons to get excited: Neither team had lost a game during the entire tournament; Sid Jacobson was trying to defend last year's gold medal; and Philadelphia, usually a perennial contender, seemed desperate to get back to the winner's bracket after failing to do so last year.
And wait a minute, does Philly really have a 7-footer?
Not quite. But at 6 feet, 10 inches tall, Jake Cohen was the talk of the tournament. Literally head and shoulders above the rest, the 16-year-old dominated play in the preliminary rounds, sometimes blocking two or three shots in a row before going down the court to score on the very next offensive possession.
Combined with the attacking offense of Todd Cramer, 16, and the steady shooting of Jake Lerner, also 16, Philly won early games by lopsided scores like 68-28 and 73-40.
Though the first couple of games drew just 30 or 40 fans, the championship game had a completely different atmosphere -- and the electricity was palpable.
"You know the level of competition. I knew I had one of my best teams ever, and you hope to get to this spot," said basketball coach Brian Schiff before the championship game.
The competition from Sid Jacobson stacked up nicely as well. Cohen, who had dominated much of the opposition in the tournament, found himself matched up against sizable front-court players and guards who could skillfully sink shots over his long-extended arms. But Cohen still got his, scoring 31 points in the game.
Yet with his size and talent also come fouls -- hard fouls. As the tournament wore on, Cohen was knocked to the floor more and more -- on both offense and defense -- forcing one courtside fan to give him some encouragement by shouting, "Hang in there!"
"It comes with the territory, but I've gotten use to it," said Cohen, who plays high school ball at Conestoga High School in Berwyn. "I've always been tall, but I've also been kind of skinnier, too, so guys try to muscle me."
Although Philly had beaten most of their opponents by more than 20 points, they found themselves in a dogfight with Sid Jacobson, whose players appeared to be taking the lead into halftime -- until Jarred Dorfman sank a buzzer-beating three-pointer to give Philly a 29-27 lead.
As the second half opened, Schiff decided to use a different tactic, going to Cohen on every early offensive possession.
"On our first eight possessions of the half, he either scored or got fouled," said Schiff.
As Philly began to pull away, they tried to control the clock, forcing their opponents to foul. By sinking 31 out of 34 free throws, Philly clinched a 66-53 victory.
"This is definitely a special group. Everyone loves playing together," said Cohen. "We're all legit as basketball players. No one said, 'Let's come to California and have a good time.' We all came here on a mission to win a gold medal -- and that's what we did."
"It feels great," said Lerner. "Last year, we didn't play too good. We knew we were better than a lot of teams, and this year, we came, we saw, we conquered."
Big Time, All the Way
Just three nights earlier, all members of the Philadelphia delegation -- including 60 players, 17 coaches and two delegation heads -- were huddled in the tunnel of a hockey arena wearing identical black, white and green pullover jackets that read "Philadelphia Maccabi."
In a flash, they were introduced to the crowd of more than 12,000 screaming fans at the Honda Center, home to NHL's Anaheim Ducks. When players and coaches marched on the court waving to the crowd during opening ceremonies, it represented their formal introduction to the JCC Maccabi Games; and while many were anxious to get on the field the following day, they seemed to enjoy the entertainment, like ESPN personality Doug Gottlieb, Israeli hip-hop violinist Miri Ben-Ari and the Los Angeles Laker Girls.
The professional arena was a big-time venue for what has become a big-time event.
The celebratory mood became more somber, however, with a presentation about the 11 Israeli athletes murdered at the Olympic Games in Munich in 1972. After documentary footage of the tragedy ended with a picture of fencing coach Andre Spitzer holding his infant daughter, the grown daughter actually spoke to the crowd.
"That was me," said Anouk Spitzer, who discussed how important it is for the youngsters to learn about the incident, even though it did not take place during their lifetimes.
During the following three days, the center of all things Maccabi was the Merage Jewish Community Center of Orange County: It's where many games were played; it's where everyone ate meals; it's where scores were posted; it's where you went if an athlete became injured.
And if the word JCC evokes visions of a modest building with an aging basketball court, a pool and maybe some classrooms, think again.
"The J," as the locals call it, is 120,334 square feet sitting on a sprawling 30-acre campus. It has two full-sized gymnasiums, locker rooms, a fitness center, a 500-seat theater, a snack bar and a large pool that overlooks the Saddleback and San Bernadino mountains, which are visible when skies are clear.
On the large outdoor patio, the local Chabad Lubavitch chapter helped kids and coaches put on tefillin and recite prayers. They even took pictures against a large photograph of Jerusalem's Western Wall.
Just inside, kids enjoyed "hang time" in between games, when they could rest on bean-bag chairs, surf the Internet or play a slew of board games.
Rather than sleep at hotels, all Maccabi athletes stayed with host families from Orange County. Candice Schnapp took in 15-year-old Dana Albalancy, as well as one of her teammates from the Philadelphia girls basketball team.
"I called and asked what kind of snacks they eat and what sort of drinks they like," said Schnapp, "and I realized I got the wrong kind of blue Gatorade."
Although Albalancy's mother, Lisa Schiffman, made the trip to the O.C. as a spectator, she knows that her daughter gained valuable experience by living with another Jewish family for a couple of days.
"The host family is part of the experience. We can stay in a hotel together anywhere," said Schiffman.
'Burying the Biscuit'
With just one minute remaining during a tenacious in-line hockey gold-medal game stuck in a 4-4 tie, Philadelphia's Alex Pascal received a pass while standing all alone in front of the net. This gave the 16-year-old a choice -- frantically try to get a shot off before time runs out, or be patient and look for a quality shot.
With no defenders in the immediate area, Pascal took the latter option, and after noticing that the opposing goalie stacked his pads to block a low shot, he wisely turned around and flipped the puck over his shoulder and into the net.
"The way to score is patience, and I tried to be patient with the puck and tried to wait for my opportunity to put the puck in," said Pascal after receiving his gold medal. "What happened was, he made the first move, and I just capitalized on him."
The game-winning goal was the culmination of an improbable run for Philadelphia hockey. Detroit had beaten Philly during the first game of the competition, and although Philly won the gold medal last year, it seemed that they may have lost too many players from the championship squad to compete this time around.
But in the ensuing games, Philly's offensive system proved to be too much for the competition. Their strategy was to slow down play by controlling the puck behind their own net, allowing two or three offensive players to skate down court at the same time, possibly developing odd-man rushes.
"The basis of the game was puck control," explained coach David Barrist. "Using the football analogy, we tried to grossly win the time of possession game."
So, was the coach worried when he watched Pascal in front of the net at the end of the championship game?
"Alex is a money player," he said. "There was no doubt in my mind he was burying the biscuit."
Just one day before winning gold, hockey players Rob Hoffman and Jake Domsky got a chance to spend an hour or so with Luis Justinioni, a man in his 20s who is blind and partially deaf. The two played bocce ball, and Justinioni used the sound of Hoffman's voice to guide him on where to throw.
The activity was the hockey team's shot at the Day of Caring and Sharing -- an activity that pairs athletes with people with special needs, many of them Special Olympians. Along with bocce ball, athletes helped their new friends with track-and-field events, like sprints and long jumps.
"He did pretty good and threw pretty fast," said Hoffman.
After saying his goodbyes to Justinioni, Domsky expressed how working with special-needs individuals opened his eyes.
"Sometimes, we take things for granted," he admitted.
For coach Barrist, taking his team through the Day of Caring and Sharing was a top priority.
"You can play in a hockey tournament anywhere, but Maccabi is more than just a sport," he said. "The Day of Caring and Sharing specifically is giving back to the community, giving to those that may not be as fortunate."
Fair Play, Sportsmanship
Rachmanes -- in Yiddish, it means "compassion," and during the Maccabi Games, the term is used as a guideline to fair play and sportsmanship.
Perhaps the greatest display of rachmanes came at a track-and-field event called the steeplechase, held on the final day of competition.
As Meghan Shanley of Philadelphia and another participant approached the finish line, they stopped and waited for two others who lagged behind. One of them was Jenna Singer, a runner from Baltimore, who had never won a gold medal during a couple of tries at the Maccabi Games, and since she would be too old to qualify for next year's games, she was competing in her final race.
When the four girls met up at the finish, they joined hands and crossed the line together.
"She really wanted a medal, so we thought we'd finish together to show good sportsmanship. And so we crossed the finish line holding hands," said Shanley, who won multiple medals on her own.
After the race -- and much discussion by officials -- all four girls received gold medals.
With the Maccabi Games also comes Maccabi gear. Each of the delegations created its own pin (Philly's had a likeness of "Rocky"), T-shirts, jerseys, and often, even a warm-up jacket.
Early in the week, athletes and coaches simply traded pins, but by Wednesday night -- the final night that coaches stayed in their hotel rooms -- the lobby looked like a shopping mall, with Maccabi gear seemingly used as currency.
Rick Lande, Philadelphia's track coach, had been waiting for this moment the entire week, and he set up a large display of T-shirts, gym bags and jerseys. Sometimes, people made a trade with him, and he would sock the item away; other times, he left it out to trade again.
In exchange for a T-shirt and a polo-style shirt from Great Britain, Lande gave up a gym bag with the Philadelphia Maccabi logo -- a great deal in his eyes.
"I usually like to get something unusual, like a Great Britain or Australia," he said "Anything Israel is really hot."
Some Maccabi veterans have drawers full of clothing collected over the years -- Lande included.
"You just walk up and trade," he said. "That's how you meet people." u
Check in upcoming sports pages for coverage of the Maccabi Games in Houston and Baltimore.
Boys Basketball: Gold Medal
Dance: Eight Medals for Two Athletes
Tennis: Four Individual Medals
In-Line Hockey: Gold Medal
Track and Field: 21 Medals for Six Athletes
Information provided by the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia