On the Kohelet Yeshiva High School basketball court on Saturday night, just hours after Shabbat had ended, Lower Merion native Yoni Eckmann and the rest of the Yeshiva University Maccabees played pickup games and ran drills with some local Jewish kids. At one point, a young boy with flailing tzitzit was airlifted by a Maccabee player to dunk the ball, the Kohelet Kings' logo imprinted on the floor right below them.
The Y.U. Maccabees, the Orthodox college's almost 75-year-old basketball team, came to town for a scrimmage Nov. 10 at Rosemont College on the Main Line. But they spent most of their time here visiting with the Jewish community in the Lower Merion area, home to several of the team's players, past and present, including Eckmann, a sophomore, and former players Marc Ladenheim and Jeremy Pressman.
In addition to their scrimmage at Rosemont, their last before the start of the regular season this week, they practiced at Kohelet, Eckmann's alma mater, had lunch at Congregation Beth Hamedrosh in Wynnewood and hosted a clinic for young players back at Kohelet Saturday night.
This year's Maccabee team appears particularly gifted on the court, with one of its tallest squads in franchise history. The tallest player, 6-foot-9-inch starting center Arman Davtian from Haifa, sets a height record for Coach Jonathan Halpert.
"In all the years I've coached, I could only have gotten a player that's 6'9" if I put one guy on another guy's shoulders," joked Halpert, who has been the team's head coach for 40 years.
Along with Davtian, the roster also carries two 6-foot-7-inch players: Eckmann and forward Dovie Hoffman.
"In past years, any 14 of these players would have been a starter on this team," Halpert raved about his roster. "The height we have all of a sudden -- and depth of skill at different positions."
Still, he cautioned against too much optimism. "We'll see if we can take those skills and mold them together and perform."
Halpert should know if that's a possibility. From 1987 through 2002, he went 15 seasons without a losing record, and has twice won coach of the year in the Skyline Conference (where the Maccabees play), as well as the College Basketball Officials' sportsmanship award twice. Last year, he was profiled in The Wall Street Journal, which wondered whether Halpert could coach a more winning team at a school with a more rigorous program. Other schools can practice on Shabbat, and players do not have to struggle with the dual secular and Judaic curricula required at Y.U.
For their part, the players feel confident they can make it to the post-season. "We're older this year, we have more experience, and we're bigger," Eckmann said, citing reasons why this year's team might be special. More importantly, he added, "we all like each other. There's no, 'This guy won't talk to this guy.' We're very positive and our practices are at a much higher level of play."
Success could take a number of different forms, from just a winning season to capturing the Skyline Conference, which would qualify them for the Men's Basketball Division III NCAA tournament -- the league's version of March Madness.
"Those are the players' goals," Halpert said. "My modest goal is to win more games than we lose and compete at every game and see what happens."
That modest aspiration got a good start last week against Rosemont, winning two of the three games played.
"I think we were pretty even," Halpert said, though he added that their tall man, Davtian, had taken an elbow to the face at the scrimmage and now had stitches. He was feeling fine, the coach explained, but the injury took him out of the scrimmage early on.
But Davtian did make it to the drills with the students at Kohelet Saturday night.
"The night was definitely fun," said Binny Fiederer, a Torah Academy seventh grader from Elkins Park. "The Y.U. players brought a lot of energy to the floor and the level of play was high quality and challenging."
"Mah nishtanah," Halpert said during his luncheon speech at Beth Hamedrosh, entitled "Y.U. Basketball and the Netziv of Volozhin."
"What makes our basketball team different from other basketball teams?" he asked rhetorically. "When you play for Yeshiva University, you are representing the Jewish people in the eyes of the world."
In past years, the team has had to mediate between winning and being deeply embedded in the Jewish faith and community. This year, they're hoping, they won't have to choose.