For NBA fans, catching a glimpse of players honing their craft has become a popular off-season treat. But there’s been an additional surprise lately for fans reading right-to-left: Several pros — including some of the league’s best — have trained at Jewish high schools.
What was once a well-kept secret has become hard to miss. In a clip recently posted to Instagram, James Harden of the Philadelphia 76ers — the one with the beard that could make a Breslover blush — waits for a pass with a Hebrew poster behind him that quotes Midrash. In the background of the same shot, his teammate Joel Embiid – the MVP runner-up (and Jewish wedding thief) – is hydrating under a saying by Pirkei Avot.
Context clues – and black and red color scheme – indicate location. This is Shalhevet, an Orthodox school in Los Angeles whose basketball gymnasium is also the site of weekly school assemblies. (Hence the posters.)
A few miles away and 11 months earlier, Laker superstars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook were spotted working out at the black-and-yellow-adorned Samson Center, the gymnasium owned by Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys High School, known as YULA. Dejounte Murray posted photos from the Samson Center to his Instagram Story in June.
What’s the appeal of hardwood courts with Jewish wisdom on the walls? As well as being relatively new, they are well-maintained, available and, most importantly, for some of the most famous people on the planet, private. That means no kids looking out the windows, let alone looking for autographs.
“They are looking for a very, very quiet, secluded, safe place,” said Rabbi Ari Segal, the former principal of the Shalhevet school.
In Shalhevet, where players head to the gym almost every day of the week at this time of year, the shidduch was done a few years ago by a student then interning for Drew Hanlen, a much sought-after private coach. . Hanlen now uses the school as a lab for a client list that includes Embiid, Harden and Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum, as well as the league’s only Jewish player, Deni Avdija.
At YULA, the arrangement was initially facilitated by an alum – who said he couldn’t comment due to a nondisclosure agreement. (YULA’s school principal also declined to comment.)
Despite (or perhaps because of) the supposed secrecy of the workouts, the videos that emerge are some of the most popular content of the NBA offseason. It was therefore inevitable that each school’s gymnasium would be the scene of its own viral moment.
During a pickup game at YULA in 2019 that involved several NBA stars, Devin Booker, a quick-silver guard for the Phoenix Suns, protested being double-teamed. The video of the exchange was posted online, sparking a debate in the NBA world which remains volatile.
Shalhevet’s biggest splash came in a 5-on-5 scrimmage that featured not only perennial stars Bradley Beal, Carmelo Anthony and Trae Young, but also rapper 2 Chainz. This is just the tip of the iceberg of top players who frequent Shalhevet: Zach Lavine, Tyrese Haliburton, RJ Barrett, Tyler Herro – the list goes on.
“It’s the best of the best,” Segal said. “I mean, it was weird, actually, how small we are, and even the size of our gym, that they compete there, but they compete there.”
NBA players playing ball at Shalhevet predate Hanlen, who Segal says pays a nominal rental fee for using the gym. In fact, the phenomenon is as old as the gymnasium itself. Dunk contest winner Blake Griffin was the first person to use it when it opened in 2015, calling the installation “incredible” in a school-produced video.
(Speaking of dunking: “I backed off a couple times when some guys threw dunks,” said Ryan Coleman, the school’s athletic director and basketball coach. Last summer, he recalls, RJ Barrett – aka the New York Knicks’ franchise cornerstone – slammed such a loud one “I honestly thought the whole basket was going to go down.” He survived.)
About half of the slogans on the wall of the Shalhevet gymnasium are in Hebrew, making them incomprehensible to all but one of Hanlen’s players: Israeli Avdija, a Washington Wizards forward entering his third NBA season. A Hebrew sign quotes the maxim “If you want it, it’s not a dream”, attributed to Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism.
According to Segal, a rabbi who passed Avdija in the hallway asked him if he had noticed him. Avdija replied something like, “You don’t know how amazing it is to train with the Israeli flag hanging in the gym.
I went to high school here. https://t.co/EUyZMbPRfE
— Louis Keene (@thislouis) July 22, 2022
Although they are forbidden to attend practice sessions—Harden and Embiid are particularly sensitive to uninvited spectators—Shalhevet students sometimes take advantage of their proximity. Some tagged selfies, others memories. The players also autographed shirts for the school to auction off.
Aiden Bitran, a sophomore at Shalhevet and a point guard for the school’s basketball team, was unaware that the NBA greats were training behind locked gym doors until that he spots Beal and his favorite player, UCLA rookie Amari Bailey, being shot through a crack in the window.
“I was going crazy,” said Bitran, 15. “My friends were like, ‘Yo, you need to relax.'”
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Segal, now Shalhevet’s chief strategy officer, said Hanlen’s herd friendliness has been consistent, even though the guys can be tough on the rims.
Last year, as the NBA offseason was coming to an end around the same time as Shalhevet’s orientation, Segal asked Hanlen if he would send a few players to meet the kids at a barbecue in school. A group went there, including Tatum and Beal, who signed a $251 million contract with the Washington Wizards this summer.
It was then that Bitran had the chance to meet Bailey – a player he says he models his game on.
During their hour-long chat, Bailey, who has over 500,000 Instagram followers, hangs out with Drake and is likely considered a first-round pick in next year’s NBA Draft, had a revelation. surprising for Bitran and his friends: he is Jewish too.
“He told us his mother was Jewish,” Bitran said. “He’s like, ‘Yeah, I got one of those yarmulkes you wear at home, bruh.’ I’m like ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ In fact, it was really cool.
Another day, he slipped into the gym and spotted Tatum, who made the NBA Finals with the Celtics last season, taking a break in the stands.
He introduced himself to Tatum and asked if he could have the player’s personalized Jordan brand wristband. Tatum said he couldn’t give it to her, but he was ready to part with his sneakers. Now Tatum’s size 15 shoe sits on a shelf in Bitran’s bedroom.
Another player, Kelly Oubre of the Charlotte Hornets, offered more resistance at first.
“I’m like ‘Yo, Oubre, can I have your shoe?'” Bitran said. “He’s like, ‘Umm, do you deserve it?'”
His winning response: “Yeah, bro. I work hard at school.
Yet for Bitran, who aspires to play college basketball, the most enjoyable perk hasn’t been the shoes, but the few minutes each day that Shalhevet’s 5:30 a.m. basketball practices end overlap. with Hanlen’s team warm-ups.
He paid close attention to the habits and routines of the sport’s elite in those fleeting moments.
“If I really want to be good at what I do one day, I have to work hard,” he said. “And just watching them train and see what they do, it’s just repeat after repeat after repeat of the same thing over and over again.”