By Joel Swedlove, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp Program Director
26 seconds on the clock. Down 11 points just three minutes ago, now leading by 2. The player steps to the line with a chance to extend the lead to 4 and push his team into the championship game. He gathers himself, takes a deep breath and shoots the first free throw…it misses.
For the second attempt he takes a deep breath, raises his eyes to the basket and fires…another miss.
The other team comes down and hits a three-point basket and is able to hold on for the one point victory. Devastation and elation.
It is easy to blame those missed free throws, to blame the defender on the three-point shot, the referee who missed a foul on the final attempt, but what is gained from that anger, from that resentment?
I wish that this situation I had created for you were a hypothetical, but it’s not. This was the scenario that played out last week for the Varsity Men’s Basketball team I coach in the Southern Nevada Semi-Final game. Coaching high school sports is one of the great privilege anyone can have. You are there not only to teach the game, but also to guide them from children to adults, to be a role model of how to be a person of strong character in the world outside of sports.
It is this second part of the job that makes the end of a high school season so devastating. Every player who puts on a high school jersey has a time limit on their career. Four years (if you are lucky) and then it’s gone, no matter how hard you train, or how much time you put in, at the end of your senior year it’s over.
There were five seniors on our team this year and when our last second attempt bounced out of the rim and our season ended, my heart broke, not for me, but for them. These young men who spent four years waking up at 5 am for early morning practices, spent hours on buses to play games in front of fifteen fans in small Nevada towns and who after years of toiling in mediocrity had changed the culture and direction of the program enough to put the school in a position to add its name to the Nevada High School record books.
It would be easy for the seniors to be bitter at their sophomore teammate who missed the free throws, or their freshman teammate who failed to rotate on defense, but instead they let them know it was okay, that while their career was over, the team would be back stronger than ever next season.
With the seconds ticking down, and his high school career on the line, one of those seniors; the team Captain (who had scored 47 points in the previous game) had the ball and as he drove to the basket the defense collapsed around him, but rather than force a shot he found his open teammate and trusted him to take that last shot. It didn’t matter that that same teammate had missed the two free throws, the Senior Captain trusted that he could do it.
No one would’ve blamed the senior for forcing a shot and making sure he took the last attempt, but instead he gave his teammate a chance at greatness, he allowed the team to be bigger than himself and that act will reverberate for years to come.
Sportsmanship is more than just shaking hands or saying good job, it’s having trust in those around you, it’s knowing that a team’s success is not just its greatest asset but a measure of the sum of its parts.
Unfortunately the game was lost…that’s life, that’s sports.
Our success and failures shape who we are, and when the team comes back next fall it will be that confidence in each other that spurs the team forward. Rather than blame and frustration there was trust and love.
That is sportsmanship, that is being a teammate, that is when sports can transcend the moment of the game and become something bigger. That is why we all love playing these games.
During Hanukkah we tell the story of a military victory, that of Judah (also known as Judah the Maccabee) leading the Maccabee army against King Antiochus (who was demanding that the Jews pray to the Greek gods.) Judah and the Maccabees were strong fighters against the King’s army and were victorious, driving them all the way out of Jerusalem. After their victory, the Maccabees cleaned the Temple and found enough oil to light the menorah for only one day, but miraculously it lasted for 8 days.
Now, you might ask, is JCC Maccabi Sports Camp named after Judah Maccabee? Well, sort of, but it’s more complicated than that. Judah and the Maccabees didn’t compete in sports like soccer, baseball, basketball, or tennis, but they were an example of a group of Jews who were physically strong, successful, and stood by their values.
The connection with the term “Maccabee” and sports came later in history with a man named Max Nordau, who coined the term “muscular Judaism” in 1898 at the Second Zionist Congress; Nordau believed that Jews should be strong and physically fit instead of relying solely on our brains. Shortly after that time, sports clubs for Jews in Germany, Russia, and Eastern Europe became popular and were often named Maccabee to show Jews as strong and successful in competition. The name “Maccabee” or “Maccabi” (the Hebrew pronunciation) stuck and has now become very common amongst Jewish sports groups from around the world, such as Israeli basketball and soccer teams, the U.S.-based JCC Maccabi Games for teens, and the Maccabiah held every 4 years in Israel for Jewish athletes from around the world.
JCC Maccabi Sports Camp is proud to have Maccabi in our title as it signifies not only strength but also commitment to ones ideals, just like Judah Maccabee.
For a more thorough historical account, read this article from the 2012 Chanukah edition of the Jweekly: How the Maccabee Moniker Moved into the Sports Arena.
The Players’ Tribune is website launched by retired Major Leaguer Derek Jeter. It’s a place for athletes to “tell their own stories from their perspective without the filter of a reporter.” Their stories are not the normal ones told on the news.
Earlier this month, Michael Carter-Williams of the Philadelphia 76ers wrote about how it feels to lose, especially when the 76ers losing record is the only thing that the media seems to focus on. He says:
“You can question my shooting. You can question my ceiling. Just don’t question if I’m giving my all every single night.”
Read the full article here, and share with a sports-loving friend or a young athlete in your family.
By Joel Swedlove, JCC Maccabi Sports Camp Program Manager
Editor’s Note: This article was written before the World Series
There are obviously important physical skills to be gained by participating in sports but what you learn about yourself, others, and life that truly makes sports a meaningful endeavor. How to be a person of strong character, one of the core values of JCC Maccabi Sports Camp, is frequently on display in youth sports and in the professional ranks. My journey as a Giants fan has enabled me to witness the good and the bad of what strong character looks like.
I was born in 1987, which for a San Francisco Giants fan is the baseball equivalent of being born under a bad sign. That year the Cardinals beat the Giants in 7 games, after the Giants led the series 3-1, but failed to score a run over the last 22 innings. It was a brutal defeat, but if you grow up a Giants fan you get used to them quickly.
I attended my first baseball game on April 12,1993. Walking through the tunnel to my seats at Candlestick Park I was in awe of the colors of the ballpark, as the orange seats shimmered in the spring sun while the green grass glistened like the Emerald City of Oz. That day marked not only my first baseball game, but also the first home game for the newest Giant, Barry Bonds. The prodigal son did not disappoint and by the time his second inning home run had cleared the right field fence I had found my favorite baseball player. Over the next 15 years I idolized Barry Bonds. I tried to learn how to hit left-handed (that didn’t go well). I wanted to play left field (that too didn’t go well). I wanted to hit home runs (you get the idea).
As I grew up, I started to take notice of how Barry’s teammates responded to him. They gave him perfunctory congratulations as he shattered records, but it was clear he was a man apart. Barry was the proverbial “I” in team. When he retired in 2007 it felt as though a great cloud had been lifted. For the first time in my life the Giants began to become a team, not Barry and 24 other guys. After winning titles in 2010 and 2012, I was sure those teams had been the definition of a “team” — no amazing superstars just 25 guys working together.
The past few weeks, however my mind has changed. After every single Giants win, members of the team fall over themselves to deliver genuine congratulatory handshakes and heap praise on their teammates. When the Giants beat the Nationals in the NLDS every player mentioned how much they wanted to win for Tim Hudson, a 16 year veteran who had never advanced past the first round and was now that much closer to the career-long dream of pitching in a World Series. When Travis Ishikawa sent the Giants into the World Series this year, every post-game interview featured a variation of “so happy for Travis” or “we know how much this means to him”.
At JCC Maccabi Sports Camp one of our core values is Tikkun Middot, hebrew for Building Character. We instill in every camper that win or lose, the game should be played the right way and you should put your teammates first. It is easy to be gracious and share praise when things are going well, but the moment for me this postseason was after the Game 3 loss to the Washington Nationals. Pitcher Madison Bumgarner had a costly error during the game. Afterwards reporters asked both him and catcher Buster Posey about the error. Both men could have justifiably blamed the other for the mistake, but instead they both took responsibility. In the face of defeat what mattered most to them was that they would stand up for their teammates.
I am envious of the young Giant fans who are growing up with this team. Not because of the Championships, but because they are learning to love the game from guys who play it the right way. The Babylonian Talmud says “Kol Yisrael Aravim Zeh Bazeh — All of Israel is responsible for one another.” No team represents that attitude more than this group of baseball players as indicated by the sign on the door of the Giants clubhouse that says “25 Guys…One Common Goal”
This week as the Giants play in the World Series let’s all take a moment to really appreciate what it looks like when a player cares more about the person next to them, than they do themselves.