Israel arrivals: Hoop dreams

After he realized his dream of playing professional basketball, he wasn’t getting a lot of minutes with Givat Shmuel, and wasn’t making a lot of money.

Yogev Berdugo From Boca Raton, Florida to Tel Aviv, 2018  (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yogev Berdugo From Boca Raton, Florida to Tel Aviv, 2018
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘Flashing to the ball” is a concept in sports where a player can either run to help out a teammate in trouble, or stand and wait for the ball to get passed to them. Yogev Berdugo learned first-hand that both life and sports reward you when you make yourself available to the ball.
“When someone is in need, meet them halfway. When someone needs help, reach out, tell them I’m here to help you, flash to the ball,” he says.
In 2001, Berdugo was graduating from Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton, Florida. His dream was to play college basketball for a Division One school. Standing at 5 feet and 9.5 inches tall and weighing 135 lbs. (Berdugo had recently been diagnosed with Crohn’s diseases and lost 20 lbs.) with no college recruiters calling his name, this was a tough task. He proceeded to write letters to all the 337 coaches in Division One and received a reply to join Hofstra University in New York, as a walk-on. He recalls, “I didn’t have a guaranteed place, but in my mind, I was already on the team.”
He didn’t make the team, but instead took a job as the team manager, preparing the court, water and jerseys before the players arrived at 5:30 a.m. After four days on the job, the coaches took notice of Berdugo’s work ethic and character, and promoted him to the first team.
“I wasn’t supposed to be there, if it was up to anyone else but me,” he says. “I made myself available to the ball.”
BERDUGO WAS born in 1982 in Tel Aviv to Moroccan parents, a home where he admits athletics weren’t truly valued. He moved to the United States to Boca Raton in 1991 with his parents and two sisters after his father, a real estate developer, wanted to explore new business opportunities.
Berdugo was a soccer and baseball player before picking up a basketball in the seventh grade. He was a natural leader and team captain. His parents were very supportive of him and his obsession, taking him to practices and games, and sending him to basketball camps and private coaching sessions.
At 18, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, and lost 30 lbs in his senior year. This is something he has had to persevere through since. Berdugo was the starting point guard on his high school team before going to Hofstra for two years. He then transferred to Brandeis University in Boston through basketball, where he played for the team and earned his degree in sociology.
After his time in Brandeis, Berdugo proceeded to follow his next dream, playing professional basketball. In 2005, he joined Maccabi Givat Shmuel in Israel’s Premier League, playing there for one season.
“It was a different style of basketball completely,” he says. “More moving, less one on one. I loved it.”
After he realized his dream of playing professional basketball, he wasn’t getting a lot of minutes with Givat Shmuel, and wasn’t making a lot of money. He decided it was time to pay his dues and work with his father in real estate.
“My father and I never really connected until I started working with him,” he recalls. “A year and a half after I started working with him in Israel, we had just finished a very taxing IPO, and I took a trip to go backpacking in Brazil. The second day from the end of the trip, I get a call from my older sister. She said, ‘Yogev, daddy passed, you have to come to Israel.’”
Berdugo was 25 at the time his father passed away. It was 2008 and the height of the recession, his immediate family had moved to Israel and New York, and he was asked to move back to the United States to take over his father’s company. He remembers it was intense, but there was no other option. In the next year, his father’s company dissolved and Berdugo found himself at a crossroads.
DAN BENSIMON grew up with Berdugo and has known him since he was young.
“Do you know those people who know you really well, who can look from the outside, and know what you’re supposed to do?” he asks. “Dan came over and said, ‘I have an idea for you. I think you should go into basketball coaching. You like basketball, you’re good with kids. People listen to you, people gravitate to you, and you can lead. I think you can do this.’”
With the advice of Bensimon, in the middle of 2009, Berdugo started his basketball coaching company, Step It Up. After his first private training session, he admittedly had goosebumps and felt a new energy; that this is what he’s meant to do. When he told some of his close friends and family about going into coaching they laughed at him.
“They were like, ‘This guy’s going to be a basketball trainer, he’s got to be kidding us,’” Berdugo remembers. “Like many times, when I said I was going to play college basketball, people laughed at me. When I said I was going to play professional basketball, they laughed again. Then I said I’m going to start a company called Step It Up and it’s going to change Jewish basketball across America, and now across the world.”
WHILE BERDUGO was beginning to grow Step It Up, he gained experience on the basketball court as a professional coach. First for American Heritage High School in Plantation, Florida, as an assistant for two years, as the head coach of Yeshiva High School in Boca Raton for three seasons and as the assistant coach at Yeshiva University from 2013 to 2015. Step It Up had developed into a sleep-away camp that would run during the summer, and he continued doing private training year round.
In the last 10 years, Berdugo has grown Step It Up from private training, to a weekly day camp, a summer sleep-away camp [now based at the College of New Jersey], a girl’s camp, an Israel program and his latest addition, a year round basketball academy in Ben Shemen called Step It Up Academy. He teaches, motivates and inspires over 300 boys and girls from grades 4 to 12 in his program, using basketball as a vehicle to impact and evolve. He employs NBA trainers as staff, a nutritionist, a strength coach and his mother as the camp mom. At the camp, it is not only about basketball. The program also includes field trips, seminars, activity programs, time for campers to eat together and celebrating Shabbat.
Berdugo says it is a gift for him to teach. His high school basketball coach Danny Hertz once gave him some advice that he never forgot: “‘It’s not about basketball once you have 15-20 kids in a gym, and they’re wide-eyed ready to learn,’ he told me. ‘You’ll teach them basketball. Take that opportunity to teach them about life. Building character, discipline, and resilience through basketball. This is what I’m most proud of.’”
With Step It Up Academy, Berdugo has teamed with a private school, the Ben Shemen Youth Village, to house 20 boys and girls in grades 7 to 12 from all over Israel. It is a year round basketball boarding school, combining athletics and education.
IN ADDITION to Step It Up, Berdugo was recently hired as the head skills development coach of the Israeli national basketball teams for ages 14 to 20, the first position of its kind. He is on the court three to four times a week with the top players in the country, year round.
“Pini Gershon, the godfather of Israeli basketball, brought me in. He’s looking to really advance Israeli basketball,” says Berdugo. He also has a month before Step It Up’s summer camp, where he works in Los Angeles with NBA trainer Drew Hanlen and NBA players.
“A huge focus of mine is to help advance Israeli basketball and bring a lot of the great things we’ve done in the past decade in the US to Israel,” he says. “To continue to develop new leaders of tomorrow, and build community through basketball. What I want to pass on, is to make yourself available to the ball. If you want something done in your life, don’t stand on the sideline and wait for life to pass you by. Get up and go do it, take life by the horns.”