A dozen young men lace up their high-top sneakers week after week during the winter season to take part in the local legend that is the Pittsburgh JCC varsity basketball team.
Eli Roth, Yoni Eglash, Andrew Shorr, Peter Wyeth, Joey Fabiano, Jack Farber, Eli Sacks, Daniel Hole, Sam Greenberg, Charlie Berntsen, Joe Wilkerson and Jacob Horvitz make up the 2014-2015 roster — a group that head coach Mark Pattis says “is very talented … from top to bottom.”
The veteran team, consisting of three seniors, seven juniors and two sophomores, is 7-0 after the last two back-to-back games that took place Dec. 20 and 21, with the Saturday night game ending in an overtime win.
This year there are 19 regular-season games, of which the home games are played in the JCC’s Robinson Building in Squirrel Hill, as well as three playoff dates at the end of February. A championship game will take place at Chatham University.
“We would like to win every game, one game at a time,” said Pattis, who made the leap this year to a leadership position following a change of guard with long-time head coach Hal Shapera. “Our schedule consists of five teams that are competitive with one another, [including] last year’s champion, Propel Charter School.”
Propel, Pattis said, mirrors its 2013 championship team with its returning players and “will undoubtedly be our toughest challenge to a championship.”
Last week, however, the JCC squad won its game against last year’s champions.
“After beating Propel last week, we are determined to receive a No. 1 seed in the playoffs and ultimately compete for a championship,” said Pattis.
Sometimes getting the ball into the hoop is more than about points on the board.
“There is no greater feeling than bringing a group of individuals together to achieve a common goal,” said Pattis, who was on the JCC court as a youth long before taking the position as head coach. “This team believes that we can achieve great things, and they are beginning to understand that is only possible if we do it together.”
Before the whistle blew at the first game of the season on Dec. 1, Pattis said a JCC basketball player alum posted a Facebook post on his wall that sparked more than 600 comments about the experience of those who have played in the past.
“A large number of these comments were reminiscing on their days as JCC players, and they mentioned how valuable the program was to them,” Pattis said. “They discussed how grateful they were to be a part of it and how they have memories that will last a lifetime.”
He printed out a number of the quotes from the Facebook thread, and read them to the team.
One alum, Dan Florian, said he was at the JCC nearly every day in his youth, coming in to shoot hoops after school and working on his plays during Saturday clinic. As a sophomore at Allderdice High School, Florien respected what he calls a prestigious high school basketball team, but he left the team in his junior year to play with the JCC varsity team.
“I did that because I loved the coach, Jim Wedner, and because I loved my teammates who were my best friends I had grown up with; we had a very good team,” Florian said of the squad that made it to the championship game of the annual Midwest tournament. (They fell short to a Detroit team that had supposedly not lost a big game in years.)
Florian, who went on to play basketball in college, now lives in Boca Raton, Fla., and works in private equity with a company that handles billions of dollars each day. He credits the JCC basketball program for his life’s success.
“Many of the lessons learned at the JCC gave me the foundation for a career in business,” Florian said. “Coach Wedner taught us togetherness, hard work [and] being accountable.”
For Pattis, an example like Florian is why he shared the alum stories with his current team.
“The point was to get them to understand truly how rich the tradition of JCC basketball is and how significant a role it will play in their development into adults, and ultimately, parents,” Pattis said. “A lot of the things that were mentioned may not have hit home at the current moment, but one day it will.”
He’d like to bring some of the alumni back to share their stories with the current team.
Pattis grew up in Pittsburgh and played in all of JCC’s in-house leagues and travel teams. In ninth grade, he took on his first coaching position with JCC’s Little Champ Super Hoopers, a basketball program that was unique in that it involved kids teaching kids. Upon graduation from high school, he attended Indiana University, Bloomington, where he volunteered with the women’s basketball team, serving various roles in his three years working with the program, including breaking down game film and assisting coaches with day-to-day activities. And while he wasn’t in Pittsburgh, he kept a close reach on the city, the sport and the Jewish community.
“Throughout my absence I still managed to stay very connected [by] working at Emma Kaufmann Camp for the last seven years and coaching the Pittsburgh Maccabi basketball team for the last two years,” Pattis said.
Last year, he and the former head coach, Shapera, coached the 16U basketball team in Austin, Texas, leading the team to finish fourth overall.
When the opportunity arose for him to take the lead, Pattis jumped at the chance.
“I could not pass it up,” Pattis said. “For me to carry on the rich tradition of the program and impact the lives of high school kids on the court and off is something that I take a lot of pride in.”
Bee Schindler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.