Comment: Let my people play!

This kind of nonsensical rule would be more discouraging if the Stars weren’t taking it as well as they have.

boys basketball team at the Robert M. Beren Academy 390 (photo credit: Samantha Steinberg)
boys basketball team at the Robert M. Beren Academy 390
(photo credit: Samantha Steinberg)
I must admit that Linsanity spoke to me far more than I had anticipated. A die-hard West coast sports fan like myself is generally hard-pressed to root for anything positive in the New York sports scene, but Jeremy Lin’s story was an exception.
Watching the ever-swelling pride of the Asian- American community with each outstanding performance rang true to me as an American-born Jew.
While I, of course, encountered a similar emotional experience with Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to ever play in the NBA, my real Jeremy-Lin-like moments were in high school basketball.
I went to YULA (Yeshiva University high schools of Los Angeles) and we were a basketball school.
While Jewish New York high schools played in ‘The Yeshiva League’ we were going up against California’s best, including a number of future NCAA Division I athletes.
For me, playing in a non-Jewish state-wide pool was a tremendous experience and a source of pride.
I fondly remember excitedly checking the LA Times every week to see our best player’s names on the state scoring leader list. For an 18-year-old Jewish boy growing up in love with sports, this was an exhilarating time and I truly believe I learned a lot in the ways of self-worth and inclusion by our school’s full participation and success in the league.
This is why the story of the Robert M. Beren Academy Stars is so disheartening.
Beren Academy is an Orthodox Jewish high school in Houston, Texas whose basketball team won its regional championship to advance to the state semifinals this weekend in Dallas. However, the Stars will not be making the trip.
Their semifinal game was scheduled for 9 p.m.
Friday night, smack in the middle of Shabbat.
The school has made a number of appeals to the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS), the organization in charge of the tournament.
Since TAPPS denied their appeal, Beren has received a shocking amount of national media attention. The story has been covered by ESPN, ABC News, and even spoken about by former Houston Rockets head coach and current ‘NBA on ABC’ analyst Jeff Van Gundy.
However, all the attention was to no avail, with TAPPS sustaining their appeal and replacing Beren with the team they had just defeated to compete in the final four.
I spoke to Beren senior Ahron Guttman after what will most likely be the team’s final practice of the season, and for Ahron, the last of his high school career.
“As a team we are sad that we weren’t able to play,” Guttman said. “We feel like we could have done very well. But we spoke to our coach and he told us how extremely proud he is of us for this season, on and off the court.”
While I, too, feel that the Stars have a tremendous amount to be proud of, I am not willing to let TAPPS off that easy.
Never mind that they had recently changed the scheduling of a game for a school of Seventh Day Adventists, who observe the same Sabbath as Jews.
What truly troubles me is the essence of high school sports being mired under the guise of procedure and policy.
High school athletics, as I see it, is a fantastic medium for kids of all cultures to come together in the name of healthy competition and character development. While its governing bodies must of course adhere to a set of rules, no rules should be so important as to overshadow this greater mission.
A bewildered TAPPS director Edd Burleson exclaimed to The Washingtonian “Why should we allow one or two or three schools to dictate what 120 other schools do?” The real question that should be asked is why shouldn’t these two or three schools be afforded this unique experience simply due to their religious beliefs, especially if the rectification of the problem is of minimal effort? If the game is moved to Saturday night, who loses? In fact, Beren’s would-be opponents had already agreed to push the game off a day.
This appears to be a tragic, and far too common, example of letting procedure get the best of common sense, a bureaucratic sentiment that has no place high school athletics.
This kind of nonsensical rule would be more discouraging if the Stars weren’t taking it as well as they have.
It is encouraging to me that while I feel TAPPS has denied the Stars players what could have been a wonderful learning experience, they are not leaving the situation without a little wisdom.
“Basketball is important, clearly everyone on the team feels that way, we practice every day of the week, it’s a huge part of our life,” an introspective Guttman explained, “but in the end our religion is what we are really about.
“There is nothing that can get in the way of that, that’s who we are, that’s what we believe in.”
So while the Asian community continues to go ‘Linsane’ I must say that I am a bit ‘Star struck’ (I hope that catches on).
I was inspired to hear Ahron reflect that “part of this for us as a team is character building, just knowing who we are.” Despite TAPPS efforts, the Stars seem to have taken the true value from high school athletics, facing adversity and overcoming it to help define who they are as a young adults heading into the real world.
So while we may not be able to gush over our Jewish brothers claiming a state championship, we can still hold out heads high thanks to the mature and principled response of the Beren players, coaches, and school faculty.
I have a feeling this will be a special Shabbat they all remember for the rest of their lives.