Before Brian Schiff became an institution in Maccabi basketball circles, he was a chef, working in various restaurants and even briefly owning a catering business.
Not many know how Schiff, known as “Shifty” to his peers, made the transition from the kitchen to the court, where he’s gone on to win 22 medals — 15 of them gold — coaching Team USA and Philadelphia area teenagers the past 25 years.
The most recent came a few weeks ago at the 20th Maccabiah Games, where Team USA’s juniors breezed through the competition to earn Schiff his fourth gold there. Ironically, the 64-year-old Schiff had planned to sit out the event and hand the reins to his friend and former University of Massachusetts assistant Adam Ginsburg, when circumstances changed and he was summoned at the last minute.
If there were any glitches, you couldn’t tell in Haifa.
“We were pretty good,” said Schiff, whose club had only one game decided by less than 10 points, beating Argentina for the championship. “No matter who I put in, we never got worse, so I could play anybody.
“But even though we were better than everyone else, the other countries are getting better. Their coaching is more sophisticated and their kids are at a higher skill level. That makes it more fun.”
Having fun and impacting young lives matters more to Schiff than winning, a message that apparently resonates, based on the number of former players who stay in touch. That’s why he’s never been tempted to move up a level and coach older players.
“Having an impact on kids is more important,” explained Schiff, who for the past 18 years has worked behind the scenes at Comcast SportsNet, first as associate producer for some of their shows, now as “ticker producer” — the guy responsible for the crawl across the bottom of the screen “because it’s totally not about me.”
That mindset is apparent to those who know him.
“I didn’t know what to make of Shifty at first,” said 42-year-old Ginsburg, who met Schiff during the 1996 regional Maccabi Games, “but he puts everything together for the betterment of each person and for Jewish youth.
“I was extremely impressed the two weekends I saw him on the court. He’s a high-level teacher who’s got a very detailed system. … One thing every parent could tell is he cares about the kids, and they get a real kick out of him.”
They can thank a chance encounter in a B’nai B’rith softball league for that.
“I was playing in the league around 1990, and the editor from the [The Philadelphia] Jewish Times wanted some stories about it,” Schiff said. “I wrote a few and then, when I was getting ready to close up my catering business, Pure and Simple, I got hired by the Times.
“That basically turned my whole life around. My first trip to Israel came when I worked at the Jewish Times and went for a tour for people new to the Jewish media. Then, when I went to write about the Maccabi tryouts in 1992, the coach, Norm Millan, asked me if I wanted to help out.”
Schiff soon became an assistant coach at Abington Friends School while becoming and assistant and then head coach for Team Philadelphia in 1998. The next year, the appointed head coach was not able to commit to the 1999 Pan Am Maccabi Games, and Schiff took over and put the team together. He’s been a fixture ever since.
And shortly after returning, his softball connections helped yet another door open.
“That’s how I ended up with my job at Comcast,” Schiff said. “I was on a team called The Tribe for about 10 years with Marc Zumoff, Jon Slobotkin and Larry Rosen. When they all left to go to Comcast, they recommended me.”
Schiff says he never could’ve imagined his career path.
“I look back and think that I ended up where I did is kind of a miracle,” said Schiff, who lives in Exton with his wife, Susan. “I was a chef going nowhere. I’ve accomplished a lot in basketball and between the Philadelphia and USA, it’s enabled me to see our whole country and large portions of the world.”
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