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Maccabi Games Court New Meaning for the Role of Player/Coach

July 28, 2011 By:
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Harrison Singer, a JCC Maccabi athlete-turned-coach, offers some post-practice pointers. Photo by Bryan Schwartzman

Coach Harrison Singer practically bounced on the sidelines, the sound of his voice as constant as the squeaking sneakers, thudding basketball and heavy breathing of his sprinting players.

"Way to move without the ball," Singer, 26, shouted to his JCC Maccabi team members as they scrimmaged inside the Harriton High School gymnasium.

"Guys, we have to get this stop."

"You have to communicate on D right now. Talk to one another."

"Hands, get those hands up."

With just over three weeks to go before the start of the JCC Maccabi games in Philadelphia -- basketball is just one of the many sports -- Singer last week was getting his first look at how his nine players function as a unit. His verdict: They're working hard, but there's room for improvement.

After practice, Singer acknowledged that his competitive fire makes it difficult to keep his frustrations in check.

"Yeah, I have my moments," the Muhlenberg College graduate said, adding that, like nearly anyone who has ever blown a coach's whistle, he hates to witness fundamental errors like his team failing to box out an opposing player on a defensive rebound, which happened a few times during the recent practice.

But Singer, a member of Adath Israel in Merion Station, keeps in mind that he was once in his player's sneakers, representing Philadelphia in the national competition for Jewish athletes. His goal, aside from winning a gold medal, is to set a positive tone and try to give his players the same kind of Maccabi experience that keeps him coming back year after year, first as a player, and for the past four years, as a coach.

"I love to teach, I love to mentor and I love to coach the x's and o's of the game," said Singer, who is also an assistant coach for Immaculata University. He also owns a car-cleaning business and is in graduate school.

Singer is one of 19 coaches for Team Philadelphia who once played in JCC Maccabi games as teen athletes themselves. That's nearly half of the 44 coaches who are training with their respective teams for basketball, soccer, in-line hockey, dance, lacrosse, swimming, track and field, and tennis.

Several of those coaches even suited up exactly 10 years ago, the last time the annual games were held in Philadelphia. (Singer was 17 in 2001: Too old to play, he served as an assistant coach.)

Begun in 1982, the JCC Maccabi games are an offshoot of the international Maccabiah Games, held every four years in Israel, and were founded to help promote Jewish pride among teenagers. Kids between the ages of 13 and 16 are eligible to compete. This year, in addition to Philadelphia, games are taking place in Springfield, Mass., and in Israel.

Some 1,000 athletes -- from around the country and the world -- are expected at the games here, which run Aug. 14-19 and are being hosted by the Kaiserman JCC.

In basketball alone, Team Philadelphia is fielding a total of four boys' teams and one girls' team.

Several other players-turned-coach echo Singer's desire to give back to the games that helped shape them -- and to help ensure that the athletes take full advantage of the Maccabi experience.

Lindsay Krasna, a 25-year-old graduate student at Columbia Teacher's College in Manhattan, competed in basketball in four JCC Maccabi Games, including the last one in Philadelphia. Then she went pro, spending the 2009-10 season competing in hoops for Ramat Hasharon, in Israel's professional women's league.

Envisioning a relatively short career with limited playing time, she gave up on professional basketball after she was accepted to graduate school. She's hoping to go into nutritional counseling. But she's still committed to Maccabi sports.

"There are definitely some parallels between the roles of counselor and coach," she said. "I think as a coach, my goal is to help boost their confidence."

But watching the action from the sidelines can be hard for her.

"I definitely find myself with the urge to jump in there. Once a player, always a player. That competitiveness never goes away," said Krasna, who became a Bat Mitzvah at Congregation Kol Emet, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Yardley. "I think I have definitely developed a balanced perspective on basketball, and Maccabi specifically, and what you are trying to instill in your players."

That includes being a living example of a "Jewish female basketball player and scholar" and making the teens aware that, despite the inevitable bumps in the road, the sport can serve as a window onto the wider world, a model for how to work with others, and a guide to physical and mental discipline.

Since the team was selected in March, the members have gathered for practice about once a month, which is not all that much time, she said. Five of her nine players are returning from last year's gold medal-winning squad in Baltimore, and they're motivated to win again.

The Cornell University grad shares that desire, but said her fondest coaching memory didn't come when her team won gold. It happened a year earlier, in San Antonio, when her team was knocked out of the playoffs early. Exhausted, awaiting an early morning flight home and spending the evening at a JCC, she and some players stayed up all night laughing and talking, poking fun at a book on motivational speaking she'd brought along.

The episode reminded her of countless experiences as a player.

One connection she made about 10 years ago was with teammate Cara Zibelman, who went on to score 1,000 points as a player for Penn State Brandywine. The two had lost touch but reconnected a few years ago, thanks to Facebook. Eventually, Krasna recruited Zibelman, also 25, to be her assistant.

Unlike Krasna, Zibelman, who is a coaching assistant at her alma mater and teaches sixth grade, hopes to further her sports career and looks at the competitive Maccabi games as good experience.

"The philosophy I'm developing is that you have to have fun and work hard at the same time. If you're not doing both, you're not going to get the outcome that you want," noted Zibelman, who became a Bat Mitzvah at Temple Sholom of Broomall, a Reform synagogue. "I need to make sure that they know that basketball is not the end all and be all," she said.

It's also about getting to know their peers from other teams. Thanks to technology, she said, now she can keep in touch with former teammates and opposing players. She wants her players to realize how easy it will be for them to stay in touch with other teens from around the country and around the world.

At the same time, Zibelman doesn't want them to lose sight of why they made the team. "Hopefully, the girls will continue to work hard and get that victory at the end."

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