This year, Rambam Mesivta’s Ravens varsity basketball team, along with Coach Judah Rhine and Carol Rhine, traveled to Memphis for the annual Cooper Yeshiva invitational basketball tournament. The tournament featured varsity basketball teams from 16 yeshivas that spanned the U.S., including California, Florida, Chicago, as well as several yeshivas from the local NY–NJ metro area. Rambam’s participation represented the culmination of seven months of planning and anticipation.
On Thursday, October 25, the team met at the Delta terminal in LGA, all wearing their brand-new Ravens warm-ups, and set out on a journey that would be memorable for many reasons beyond basketball.
Upon their arrival at the Memphis airport, they were met at the gate by a tournament official and transported by bus to the Doubletree of Memphis. They were given a variety of tournament goodies—shirts, bags, kippahs—and then quickly unpacked in their rooms and boarded the van to the JCC of Memphis. The sight was overwhelming—two courts, two simultaneous games, and all the other participating schools waiting on the sidelines for their scheduled games to begin. Their opening round game was against the nationally ranked YULA. Despite being “outheighted” and being down 23–8 after the first quarter, they managed to play even with them the rest of the way. By virtue of Rambam’s competitiveness, they were hoping for a “higher seed” going into Friday’s tier-2 tournament.
Following all the first-round games, they all headed back to the hotel to get ready for the tournament’s opening-night barbecue at Congregation Anshei Sephard. They met for Ma’ariv, followed by an opening d’var Torah by Rambam’s own Rafi Cooper. At the barbecue, the featured speaker was former NBA star Damon Stoudamire, who gave insight into life in the NBA. Finally, the seeding was revealed for the rest of the tournament and indeed Rambam moved up to the fifth seed and a date with the Atlanta Lions.
After Shacharis, they headed back to the JCC for that day’s games. In a hard-fought seesaw battle, Rambam defeated Atlanta and moved on to the semifinals.
One of the highlights of the tournament weekend is the Shabbos spent in the Memphis Jewish community. All the teams prepared for Shabbos and drove to the Baron Hirsch shul for Kabbalat Shabbat. Following davening, Josh Kahane, the tournament director, called out each participant’s name and matched him with a host family for Friday-night dinner. Several members of each team were grouped to go to a different host’s home. This took no more than 15 minutes as all the players, coaches, and visitors were spread out around the Memphis Jewish community and were treated to a sumptuous home-cooked meal filled with Southern hospitality. This was an incredibly personal and warm touch.
Following Shabbat dinner, everyone met at the Cooper Yeshiva for an oneg that featured Joel Chasnoff, an extremely entertaining Jewish comedian who had most of the crowd “rolling on the floor.” Shabbos morning davening took place at the Cooper Yeshiva and was followed by several divrei Torah from each of the schools. After a beautiful kiddush with a Southern touch, all the tournament participants proceeded to the Cooper Yeshiva beit midrash where they heard Chris Wallace, the general manager of the NBA Memphis Grizzlies, who is also involved with AIPAC, and Jonny Halpert, coach of the YU basketball team for 40 years, who gave his perspective on coaching young Jewish athletes in today’s world. Following lunch and Minchah, the boys had menuchah until Ma’ariv and Havdalah.
Each team designated one player to participate in the Cooper Yeshiva tournament’s national three-point competition. Sixteen participants start off on Thursday of the tournament and have 60 seconds to score as many three-point shots as possible. The top eight scorers of the first round proceed to the second round on Friday. The top four scorers of the second round proceed to national semifinals on motzaei Shabbat. The top two scorers of the semis then proceeded to the national championship on Sunday, where the top scorer is crowned three-point champion. Rambam’s own Shmuel Rosenthal shocked everyone (except for himself and his Rambam teammates) and won the national three-point championship and a large trophy that went along with it.
Rambam’s participation in the Cooper tournament was a huge success. But the story does not end there. As early as Sunday morning, prior to the last game, the boys received news reports of the impending hurricane, the cancellation of their Sunday evening flight, and the closure of the New York area airports. The players immediately contacted their parents and informed them that they would be staying in Memphis for a bit longer than anticipated. The coaches started making plans for the next several days. Each morning the boys davened Shacharis at the Cooper Yeshiva along with the other stranded schools—SAR, Frisch, and North Shore. This was followed by breakfast, a shiur by the principal of the yeshiva, some free time, and then lunch. Each afternoon, the boys visited different places in Memphis. Each evening they had dinner at a different host’s home. The Memphis Jewish community opened up their hearts and homes to the students, and the boys are sincerely grateful for the warmth and hospitality. Although far away, the boys kept a close eye on the events back home, and their thoughts and feelings were with their families. Finally, on Thursday, November 1, LGA opened up and they were able to secure a flight back that afternoon. It was a welcome relief to know that all the boys would be reunited safely with their families.