When the U.S. Junior boys basketball team begins playing at the 11th Pan American Maccabi Games in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in December, they will surely be favorites to win the gold medal. Just 10 years ago, however, it was anybody's competition.
But it all changed when Brian Schiff took over as head coach of the 13- to 16-year-olds, and began a dominant run in international play, earning a record of 24 wins and no losses with the U.S. Maccabi teams. His players have also won four gold medals — two at the Pan-Am games and two at the World Maccabiah Games in Israel.
His philosophy is simple.
"My thing has always been, treat them like adults, don't treat them as 15-year-olds," said Schiff, 53, who was officially named head basketball coach for the Pan-Am games earlier this month.
Schiff, or Schifty as he is often called, began his coaching career in 1992 while working as a reporter for the Jewish Times, a now defunct weekly. His particular assignment this time was to cover a Maccabi tryout, but he admired the program and decided to become an assistant coach, even though, at the time, he did not know much about the Xs and Os of the game.
"I basically said 'good job' to kids because I had no idea how to run any organized basketball team."
Schiff partly credits his transition into a viable coach to Steve Chadwin, the longtime basketball coach at Abington Friends School, where Schiff served as an assistant for five seasons.
"I started reading books, going to coaches' clinics," said Schiff, who is now a program coordinator and associate producer at Comcast Sportsnet and lives with his wife in Exton.
He soon moved on to coach the Philadelphia team at the JCC Maccabi games, a nationwide Olympic-style competition — and his scrappy teams quickly gained notice.
" 'No lead's ever safe against those Philly kids,' " said Schiff, echoing what other coaches and players have told him. "It's a tribute to what Philadelphia's basketball reputation has always been…I feel blessed and fortunate that I'm part of the local basketball community."
He eventually earned four gold medals in JCC competition.
Schiff believes that when building a team, it's less about his coaching skills and more about his ability to find the most talented players.
"You can lose with good players but you can't win without them," he said.
As in past years, tryouts for this year's Philadelphia team — held March 4, 11 and 18 at the JCC Klein branch — should attract some of the best high school hoopsters in the area. In many cases, players on the Philadelphia team — and surely the U.S. teams — have moved on to play Division I or Division II college ball. Jason Vegotsky dazzled as a JCC Maccabi player and now plays at Bucknell University, a team that upset Kansas in last year's NCAA tournament.
At the games in Buenos Aires, Schiff is looking forward to spending time again at another South American JCC (he previously coached at a Pan-Am in Santiago, Chile) which he described as half-country club, half-athletic complex. He is also excited to build relationships with Jewish athletes and coaches from around the world.
"There is a stereotype of a nerdy Jewish athlete, but there are good athletes who happen to be Jewish — and there's millions of them out there."