Taking a casual glance at the crowd gathered at the Wachovia Center during the Philadelphia 76ers game on Jan. 13, it was clear that the fans hadn't come together just to witness another matchup with division rivals, the New York Knicks.
A group of guys with beards and yarmulkes were cheering on the home team. A group of girls were wearing white T-shirts with the Sixers' logo written in Hebrew. A little higher up in the stands, it seemed that entire sections were filled with families representing Jewish day schools or other such groups.
They'd all come for one reason: to celebrate Jewish Heritage Night, while also taking in a little hometown basketball.
The Sixers and Knicks treated them to a terrific game — a back-and-forth battle that came right down to the wire. With the Knicks ahead by one point, the Sixers had the ball with just 13 seconds left, but somehow, they just couldn't make it happen. The Knicks won 93-92. (Typical Philly sports, right?)
An hour before tipoff, Jews had packed into the arena's 11th Street Atrium, where Rabbi Saul Grife from Beth Tikvah B'nai Jeshurun in Erdenheim played with his rock band as visitors munched on kosher food, provided by Max & David's in Elkins Park, and perused an exhibit of artifacts from the Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.
A choir from Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy took to the stage to perform a few songs. They were followed by Sixers TV play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff, who explained to the crowd the considerable influence that Jews have had on professional basketball, particularly in the early days. Then he asked a trivia question: Who scored the first point ever in the history of professional basketball?
The answer: A Jewish ballplayer named Ozzie Schectman, playing with the Knicks, did it in 1946.
Grife, who came with more than 50 people from his synagogue, said that he was "thrilled that we, as Jews, could come together to celebrate our heritage in public. Tonight, we can celebrate things we all have in common — our love of being Jewish and our love of our basketball team, the Sixers!"
Jo Ann Chalal Engleman attended with her family from Lafayette Hill. She said that she couldn't pass up the chance to attend a sporting event where she could order kosher food.
"It's very nice to know I can get strictly kosher food in a place where I otherwise wouldn't be eating," she said.
Following the Bouncing Ball
Eliav Ehrenkrantz, a 16-year-old from Elkins Park, said that he wasn't as psyched for the game as he was for half-time, when he and others in the Junior Jewish Basketball League would have a chance to play a game on the court.
Matisyahu — an Orthodox Jew who's become a beat-boxing musical sensation — officially opened the Sixers game with a rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." He also ended the festivities with a raucous concert.
Throughout the game, any break in the action meant an opportunity to educate people on the Jewish contribution to basketball. With "Hava Nagila" playing over the loudspeakers, the stadium's giant TV showed photographs and bios of prominent Jews in the game of basketball, like former Sixers coach Larry Brown and legendary Celtics coach Red Auerbach.
Up in a luxury suite, about 13 families associated with Chai Lifeline — a group that assists families with seriously ill children — also watched the game.
Rabbi Sruli Fried, New Jersey regional director of Chai Lifeline, said that Jewish Heritage Night was not just a chance for families to get out and take in some sports, but also "an opportunity for them to meet other parents in similar situations.
"They all have kids with serious illnesses, so while their kids are having a good time, they can mingle and offer support for one another," said the rabbi.
Stephane Strunk, who saw the game with her 16-year-old son, Zakki — he suffers from lung disease, as well as other ailments — said that outings like this are really meaningful.
"When you're busy with medical procedures and hospital days constantly — we've logged over 200 days a year for several years — just to get out and feel normal, and do something special sustains Zakki with something to look forward to," she said.
Matisyahu even made a visit to the suite, taking photos with the kids and Chai Lifeline staff members.
Through it all, Zakki, a self-described Philly sports nut, focused intently on the game.
With 13 seconds left in the game, and the Sixers down by a point, Rodney Carney launched a desperate three-point attempt that hit the rim.
After the loss, Zakki could only shake his head.
But no matter his frustration about the score, he was clearly overjoyed to be part of the evening's festivities and to have had the chance to root — in person — for the home team.