Sport offers competition. Perhaps more importantly, sport also offers conversation.
Various names are offered as to the greatest Jewish Community Center basketball player ever. Arthur Pitt, originally of Pittsburgh, raised a similar inquiry two years ago, and 681 Facebook responses later, the question remained unanswered. In the midst of college basketball’s March Madness, The Jewish Chronicle decided to ask again.
“There were some really good players who played in the league when I played at the Y,” said Alan Mallinger, men’s center-fit platinum director at the JCC.
“Jimmy Miller played at New York University (then Division I) in the late 1960s,” said Malinger. Between 1966 and 1968, Miller played in each of NYU’s 71 games, averaging 12.4 points per game.
There was also Frank Gustine, said Mallinger. In the late 1960s, Gustine was a three-sport letterman at the University of Pittsburgh.
“And Yram Groff,” he added. “Oh yeah, he was one of the best players.”
Groff started for Amherst College for three years and was the 1988 New England Athletic Conference Player of the Year.
Miller, Gustine and Groff — “those are my top three,” said Mallinger.
Mark Pattis, the JCC’s program coordinator of sports and recreation and Emma Kaufmann Camp, differed.
“I’m one of the younger guys, but in terms of my generation, Ben Kander comes to mind,” he said. “I also have to give my brother Alex some love, he was one of the better ones.”
Pattis dated his “generation” from 2003 to 2009 but acknowledged earlier players as potential greatest.
“I’ve heard stories about Freddy Rabner, Jimmy Wedner, Arthur Pitt. As a younger kid, I watched Andy Pakler,” he said. “Most of these guys were not college basketball players, but they were definitely recognized throughout the community as pinnacle players throughout the JCC, players who were very, very solid at the time.”
In Pattis’ mind, great and collegiate are not synonymous.
“When you talk about great, it’s from the standpoint of the community and the fact that they knew who that person was,” he said. “And when they walked on the court, there was respect because people knew how they played.”
Kander, who played for the JCC through eighth grade then for Shady Side Academy, disagreed.
“The ones who played in college definitely have a leg up. That’s just an automatic, it’s just a differentiator,” he said.
And in terms of the greatest, Kander offered more names to the pool.
“People who stand out were Josh Marks, Barry Dunn, Isaac Osher, Scott Oklin,” he said. “I’d like to think I was in that group from my generation.”
People joke with me about being a JCC All-Star, and it’s a world unto its own,” Kander continued. “JCC All-Stars or JCC All-Americans, it’s a crew. When they come to the JCC, everyone knows them; everyone wants them on their team. It’s cool when you get them from different generations playing at the same time.”
“I haven’t heard that [all-star] term,” said Yishai Pliner, who played for the JCC’s Maccabi team in the late 1990s. “When you’re good, you don’t need any terminology thrown around. You just go out and play, and people know who you are.”
Pliner played Division III for Yeshiva University but says college ball is not the sole determinant for greatest JCC player.
“If we’re talking about someone who played Division I, then you need to have played, but I don’t think there’s anyone who played legit D-I,” he said. “It definitely should factor in, but I don’t think it should be a prerequisite.”
But as for the best?
“Ben Gallagher was by far,” Pliner said. “He was just insane. He played in Maccabi and played in Monday night recreational leagues. I played with him, and he definitely was legit.”
After playing for Butler Area High School, Gallagher played Division III for Juniata College.
“Ben was 6-feet-5 and could shoot threes from no-man’s land,” added Pliner. “He was no joke, and he was Jewish.”
Like Pliner, Fred Rabner represented Pittsburgh in the Maccabi Games. In 1985, Rabner’s team, which included Dan Markinson, Randy Berger, Todd Cohen and David Grinberg, won the gold medal.
“Here you have a JCC team representing the Pittsburgh delegation and four kids who played played AAAA high school basketball,” said Rabner.
He also gave a nod to Jim Wedner. “Jimmy was a great player in his own right.”
“The question is kind of funny, because you have the best and you have the most accomplished,” added Wedner. “To me, it’s a pretty short list. The best players to come out were Buddy Valinsky, pound for pound, and Paul ‘Muffy’ Jackson. Muffy had a career at Washington University in St. Louis, and Buddy played at a school that eventually became the University of Charleston.”
Wedner noted other collegiate athletes: Ronnie Schwartz (Yeshiva University), Dan Florian (Suffolk University) and Josh Schachter (Allegheny College).
“I feel like those five stand out to me,” said Wedner. “If I had to rank them, I probably would say Buddy, Muffy, Dan, Ronnie and Josh, but you’re splitting hairs man. All of them were special.”
Such “specialness” stemmed from their commitment to basketball, he added. “Let’s face it. When you’re playing D-III, you’re usually doing it for the love or the desire. There’s little or no aid, compensation or grants. These people did it because they loved to play. They certainly had the ability, but they were willing to sacrifice, and that’s what made them special. And that love of the game was instilled in them at the JCC.”
“I saw Buddy [Valinsky] play. Without question, he’s the best,” said Lenny Silberman, CEO of Henry Kaufmann Camps. “He had the best skillset, he understood the game, and he was a team leader.
“In high school … a lot of players looked at the coach for moral support. Buddy never looked at the coach, Buddy was the coach. Not to take anything away from his coach, but Buddy knew the game that well. The only other person who was in the same breath was Muffy, and I watched Muffy play from sixth grade through his collegiate career. If Buddy were as tall as Muffy, he would have played D-I.”
“People come up with crazy ideas of what is good and who’s the best player,” said Valinsky.
“What does good or great mean? It’s all subjective.”
Valinsky played for Allderdice in the 1970s and then at Morris Harvey College, which became the University of Charleston.
“To me, a high level is only D-I or D-II. D-III are good players, but when you’re growing up in high school and you see kids going to Marquette, those are good basketball players. In the era that I was growing up in, in the 1970s, that’s where kids were going.”
Valinsky mentioned Muffy Jackson but was reluctant to include other players.
“I’m not a big fan of comparing teams or players from different eras; it’s a different game,” he said. “The game of basketball is great for everybody.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.