Warren Buffet had no billion-dollar bracket challenge, but the competition was spirited and the conversation familiar at the National Hillel Basketball Tournament.
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Forty-one teams and 300 players from colleges across the United States came to the University of Maryland campus last weekend for the National Hillel Basketball Tournament’s fourth incarnation in what also represented a homecoming of sorts: Back-slapping recognitions renewed acquaintances from summer camp and high school days.
The men’s title game, in fact, featured two athletes who have attained the heights of collegiate sports: Jacob Susskind, who plays for Maryland, and Anthony Firkser of Harvard — the Crimson’s football team, that is.
Maryland would win not just the men’s crown but the women’s, too.
Arriving at Ritchie Coliseum for the championship game — most contests were held at the larger Reckford Armory across the street — Susskind hobbled in, a function of fatigue from the nonstop hoops.
“It’s to help spread the word about Jewish people in basketball. It’s a cool concept: to come together with the same religious belief, and to do something everyone likes to do, which is play basketball, is a plus,” Susskind said on Sunday afternoon after his team won a preliminary-round game.
Susskind, who attended the Golda Och Academy, a Solomon Schechter school in West Orange, N.J., spoke at courtside while watching Kansas play Massachusetts, and pointed to a guard wearing uniform No. 10 for the former.
“He came up to me the other day and said, ‘I know you.’ It was cool to see him,” said Susskind, explaining that the two played seven years ago at a Jewish day school tournament in Baltimore.
The Kansas player, Cory Gutovitz, in turn, said he had guarded one of Susskind’s Hillel teammates, Nachum Shapiro, at the same Baltimore tournament and stayed at Shapiro’s home.
“I was always active in Hillel, and I love basketball,” said Gutovitz, who graduated last year. “I didn’t realize how many people would be here until Friday night dinner, when I saw maybe 500 people.”
“It was Jewish March Madness. I’ve gone to Jewish tournaments in high school and had the same mindset: that these Jewish kids can’t be that amazing. Here, I learned my lesson: It’s good, competitive basketball.”
It’s also a schmooze fest. Gutovitz and four other Kansans stayed at the campus apartment of Tara Feld, Shapiro’s girlfriend. Chatting in the building’s corridors late Saturday night, Gutovitz met a female student who had attended the wedding of his basketball teammate at Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in Overland Park, Kan.
And so it went: a 48-hour festival of basketball and gabbing, with breaks for kiddush, havdalah and Shabbat meals.
With basketball at its core, the event began modestly in 2011 with 20 teams and one goal: “to get Jewish kids from all over the country for a weekend of communal bonding as well as basketball competition,” said Joseph Tuchman, a Maryland sophomore who chairs the tournament.
Now it has a $60,000 budget, sponsors such as Gatorade and UnderArmour, and plenty of spectators — 1,000 attended Saturday night’s opening games.