April 14, 2024
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It’s Not Coaching, It’s Teaching!

It’s hard to tell if Dr. Jonathan Halpert is speaking about the disadvantages or advantages to players and himself in coaching the Yeshiva University men’s basketball team, the Maccabees, when he speaks of his 41 year career, which is still going strong. But what is clear is that everything that has happened, every loss, every win and every game, is a lesson learned for the man who has 413 career victories, a record that puts him in the same sphere as the top coaches for New York City colleges and universities.

“Excuse my voice,” he said roughly, “It’s a little sore from the last game. It was all worthwhile because we won,” he quipped a few days before the release of his book, “Are You Still Coaching?” which he said took him three years to write.

Starting out as a student of Hebrew Literature and Educational Psychology with a concentration in mental retardation, Halpert said it’s all about teaching and that’s what coaching is. “It’s what I enjoy doing and what I always wanted to do.”

Halpert played in Yeshiva University High School for Hy Wettstein, finding time to demonstrate for Soviet Jewry at a time when few were interested. During the summers he coached the waiters’ team in Camp Raleigh (with Rabbi David Weinbach). These credentials helped him get a second job while working as a teacher in 1966.

“All the teachers needed two jobs then…I taught (special education) from 9 to 3 and I coached in the evening,” having won a fellowship and landing an NBA (National Basketball Association) junior varsity coaching position. However, in 1972 he got a call from his own former college coach Bernard “Red” Saracheck, “he was like the rebbe of college basketball.”

Halpert had a choice of coaching the championship high school MTA team or a college team that had ten consecutive losing seasons and only seven wins among the 50 loses in the past three years. “I chose the challenge,” said Halpert in his book. This schedule of teaching during the day and coaching at night went on for about 18 years before another teacher and Halpert created an agency called Camelot to operate group homes for developmentally disabled and traumatically brain injured adults on Long Island which they continued to do until 2001.

“It was almost like two worlds,” working 12 hours and then going to Yeshiva to coach basketball four nights a week. Yet he kept at it because he enjoyed teaching. It also gave him the opportunity to stay competitive even though he was no longer playing the game himself. But there was something a whole lot more significant to him and to his players.

Halpert spoke with pride of them and also the opportunity that the team gave all of them, to represent the Jewish people. “It’s not because I think so or say so, but because the outside world thinks so. When we went to play Maritime or St. Vincent, when we came onto the court, we were the Jewish school, the Jewish players, the Jewish team.”

One of those students was Lior Hod, president of ELLKAY, LLC in Teaneck, who found a second father in Halpert. With no support from his parents and about to go to a Baptist junior college on a basketball scholarship, Halpert took Hod under his wing. “I wasn’t religious at the time.” But he met Halpert’s family, including his wife, Aviva, who has come to be known as Coachette to all the players. “I know that’s what I wanted, that type of family life.”

These opportunities and the desire to meet new challenges was what got him and his players through all the years of having to travel about an hour each way to practices before Yeshiva University had its own basketball court. What might have been considered an insurmountable challenge for other coaches was an asset for Halpert’s team, their focus. His students took religious studies at 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. when they switched to secular classes and worked until 8 p.m., then traveled an hour to a basketball court, and practiced just two hours. Some would return to Hebrew studies, others went home and the cycle would repeat itself. It was hard on all of them but they persevered through losing game after game.

“From ‘72 to ‘84 we had losing records.” Aside from the limited practice time, Halpert said the level of competition jumped due to open admissions. “I was fortunate that Yeshiva was very supportive of me and the kids were very supportive of me. In 1972, I thought I was a genius (coaching championship teams) but by 1975,” with just nine players on them team, “I realized I was a dummy.” Though they did not do well on the courts, every single one of the players went on to become a doctor, a dentist, or a lawyer, said Halpert. These were dedicated young men who stuck to their goals, both academic and athletic despite losing games. Through those years, the team didn’t win often, but they did win. “If the challenges are worthy you don’t let setbacks keep you from pursing it…If you want to learn how to win, you have to learn how to lose.”

And the kids played. This was what Halpert called “The great decade,” in his book because of what it taught him and his players during those years. He said working hard and studying hard doesn’t always mean success, but that the lesson is necessary in order to succeed.

Getting their own basketball court in 1985 turned the tide for the Maccabees and Halpert. “We started to win, we had 15 consecutive winning seasons; we went to four post season tournaments. But we had a place to practice, it was less time consuming and more kids came out for the team.”

Yet winning is not what it’s all about said Halpert. “When the moment of truth comes I have to decide between integrity and honesty and winning, why winning should be a distant third.”

This thought was seconded by Halpert’s son, Rabbi Yehuda Halpert of Teaneck. “He’s never lost sight of the context of basketball in the greater scheme with respect to Jewish identity or his priorities in general.”

By Anne Phyllis Pinzow

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