“Do you believe in miracles?”
That was the famous line from sportscaster Al Michaels on February 22, 1980, when the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team beat the seemingly unbeatable Russian national team at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics during the depths of the Cold War.
And—lehavdil—that was exactly how The Nachmanides Ninjas felt when they won the varsity basketball championship in the Yeshiva League this year. The Nachmanides School was not regarded as a sports powerhouse—far from it. If college admission records were a criteria for athletic prowess, then they were champions, but alas, it was not. They had a first-rate debating team, and they were often contenders at the Torah Bowl, but basketball was not their forte.
So when the Ninjas crept into the playoffs with a 7-5 record, and then managed to advance to the championship game against the Maimonides Rambombers (it was billed as the Battle of the Rishonim), it was nothing short of incredible. And then when they defeated their rival in a stunning overtime victory, it was, well, miraculous.
They were an undersized group, even for a Jewish school. Their tallest player, their starting center Neal Landau, was 5-foot-9. But they had amazing ball-handling abilities in their guard duo of Chezkie Kleinman and Moshe Sasson. And their power-forward, Michael Potashnik, had his outside shooting gelling at just the right time. For Coach Danny Rubinstein, everything had synched at the perfect moment for their playoff run.
Now they sat in the visiting locker room at Hohokus Prep, waiting to play the winner of one of the other northern New Jersey sports divisions to gain the right to go to the New Jersey State Competition.
It did not look good.
The Ninjas had seen their opponents drilling in the gym as they got off the team bus. They looked really good. But more than anything, they looked really tall. Their center was well north of 6 feet, and all the players on the Hohokus Hawks seemed to dwarf the Nachmanides crew. Forgive the pun, but they seemed to be in way over their heads (OK, so don’t forgive the pun).
As the team sat on the cold, crimson benches in the locker room, waiting for Coach Danny to speak, the room reverberated with the chanting of the rabid fans in the gym just beyond the painted cinder block walls (also crimson).
It was intimidating, to say the least.
Danny looked his crestfallen players in the eye. He gave each one a steely glare. Then he spoke in a loud, booming voice.
“Sasson! Who are you, Palti ben Raffu?”
“And Landau! Do you think you’re Nachbi ben Vafsi, or something?”
Neal Landau said nothing. He just stared at his coach with a confused look.
“And Friedman, are you channeling your inner Gadi ben Susi?”
“Sir, no sir!” Jake Friedman shouted.
“Do any of you have any idea who these people were?”
No one spoke.
“Surely you know that they’re in this week’s parsha!”
None of the basketball players had ever participated in Torah Bowl.
“They’re miraglim! They were three of the spies Moshe sent to Israel to reconnoiter. Palti was from the tribe of Binyamin, Nachbi was from Naftali, and Gadi was from Menashe.”
Coach Danny continued his pep speech. “There’s a reason you don’t remember their names. That’s because they didn’t have what it took to get the job done. Do I make myself clear, Sasson?”
“Very clear, Coach!”
“When these spies journeyed through the Promised Land, they encountered Achiman, Sheishai and Talmai, who were described as the yelidai ha-anak, which many commentaries say were the sons of giants. And I imagine that, to the meraglim, these three dudes looked a lot like the basketball players from Hohokus look to you. Ginormous.
“Do you think that’s funny, Friedman?”
“Sir, no sir.”
“Lighten up, Friedman, this isn’t the Marines.”
“So when the spies described to the Israelites what they saw in the land, they said vanehi vi-eineinu kachagavim. We were like grasshoppers in our eyes. Do you notice anything funny about that sentence, Kleinman?”
“Yes, Coach. They said they were like grasshoppers in their own eyes, not in the eyes of the people they were spying on.”
“Correct Kleinman. They psyched themselves out. But we’re not going to do that, are we?”
“I can’t hear you!”
“That’s right! We’re going to be more like Calev ben Yefuneh from the tribe of Yehuda, who said ‘Alo na-aleh veyarashnu ota, ki yachol nuchal la. We shall surely ascend and conquer the land, for we can DEFINITELY do it!’ Can we do it, Ninjas?
“And of course the Israelites did conquer the land, because they had faith. And they believed in themselves.”
“So let’s go out there and kick some Hohokus Hawk butt!”
A loud primal scream was emitted by the Nachmanides team as they streamed out of the locker room, brimming with confidence.
It really isn’t important for the purposes of this story to give you the final score of the game. Maybe it’s better that way. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
By Larry Stiefel
Larry Stiefel is a pediatrician at Tenafly Pediatrics.