The longest winning streak in men’s college basketball belongs to the Yeshiva University. The school has won over 100 games in a row, dating back to December 7th, 2003 when it beat Manhattan College by 29 points.
This team is a powerhouse in the NCAA. They have won 73 consecutive games, they’re winning again this year too, and no one can stop them.
The “college basketball today” is a sport that has been around since the 1800s. The longest winning streak in men’s college basketball belongs to Yeshiva University.
THE MOTHERS AND FATHERS OF Ryan Turell, the greatest player on the team with the longest ongoing winning run in men’s college basketball, wanted his kid to go to a different school at first.
They’re seated in the living room of their Sherman Oaks ranch home on a Sunday afternoon in August. Laurel, a personal trainer who starred in a few Jane Fonda training videos in the 1980s, and her husband, Brad, a corporate communications consultant, are doing what sports parents do best: talking about their children.
In this instance, the focus of their narrative is their youngest kid, a 6-foot-7 guard for the Yeshiva University Maccabees who has recently attracted the attention of the media and pro scouts. Given that YU, which is based in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, competes in the NCAA’s third division’s overlooked Skyline Conference, which includes such basketball powerhouses as Sarah Lawrence College and the United States Merchant Marine Academy, he may have more than his fair share. Several NBA organizations have requested footage from Ryan’s head coach, stating that they would be monitoring this season. Even if he is a long shot for the NBA, even this degree of curiosity is remarkable considering that the list of former Division III players already in the NBA begins and stops with the Heat’s Duncan Robinson. Before becoming pro, he advanced to Division I.
Nonetheless, the Turells are already discussing their son’s career chances. Ryan’s ability to play in Europe or Israel has been widely speculated for some time, but the NBA speculation is new. Laurel, the daughter of Southern Baptist evangelical singers, believes providence had a little role in this fairy tale, but that’s a story for another day. She and Brad are now discussing Ryan’s choice to place his lifetime professional basketball goals in a school that specializes in teaching rabbis, social workers, attorneys, and physicians. Despite the fact that the family’s oldest kid, Jack, had a pleasant time learning and playing at Yeshiva, the family had higher hopes for Ryan.
Brad, who averaged 1.8 points per game as a guard at UC Santa Barbara in the 1970s, claims he had offers from D-I institutions. “The Big West, Mountain West, Big Sky, and Ivy League all have excellent programs. There are even a few service academies. We assumed he was going to West Time at one point.”
That would have thrilled Laurel, whose father served in the army as a colonel. Ryan’s parents were both astonished when he informed them late in his senior year that he chose to attend his brother’s alma school. “Why in the world would you want to go to Yeshiva?” I said. Brad reminisces. “And Ryan said, ‘Why did you send me to Valley Torah High School?’”
Ryan, a moon-faced 22-year-old with flowing blond hair, nods and grins as he hears a tale he’s heard before.
He continues, “And Emek,” alluding to the adjacent Emek Hebrew Academy, where he attended elementary and junior high school.
Laurel Turell adds, “If you hear someone shouting incredibly loudly when Ryan is performing, it’s me.” AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski
The young man’s argument is that he was raised in a home where basketball and Judaism were both important. When Ryan was in kindergarten, Brad, who played against future NBA player Kiki VanDeWeghe as a child and subsequently worked in public relations for him, hired dribbling and shooting tutors for both of his boys. (The middle Turell kid, Austin, had different interests.) In terms of their children’s education, Brad, who was born Jewish and reared in the Reform style, began studying with an Orthodox rabbi in his late twenties with the intention of learning more about his faith. After meeting his instructor, Laurel, who had come to L.A. from Texas and was dating Brad, began the process of conversion. They both converted to Orthodoxy.
Ryan claims he considered the Division I free scholarships before asking his parents to pay $50,000 a year for him to study business and play baseball at Yeshiva University. He wasn’t sacrificing his aim of being the first Orthodox Jew in the NBA by selecting Yeshiva. He was leaning towards it rather than away from it. “I want to teach kids like myself that it’s possible,” Ryan explains. “I want to be a Jewish sports hero,” she says.
“Would you want anything to read?” says the flight attendant. “Do you have anything light?” said a passenger. “How about this pamphlet, “Famous Jewish Sports Legends?” says the flight attendant.
During Yeshiva’s remarkable 36-game winning run, Gabriel Leifer, the Maccabees’ other multiple-time Division III All-American, performed a noteworthy (though tiny) act of heroism. Yeshiva was behind in the second half of a game in West Hartford against the University of Saint Joseph, which was coached by the renowned Jim Calhoun, when Leifer decided to do something he’d never done before: take a charge. “I was concerned I’d make a fool of myself,” the 6-6 Leifer, a fifth-year forward, admits. “However, I reasoned, ‘The squad needs a spark.’” Leifer drew a foul while stepping in front of a charging Tyree Mitchell. “Everyone on the bench was giddy with anticipation. ‘Gabe made a move!’”
Yeshiva won for the 35th time in a row, 71-62. “Gabe provided this energy to the squad that made it hard for them to defeat us,” Turell, who led the club with 22 points on the night, remembers. “I believe they realized the tide had flipped and the game was ours at that moment.”
It was a classic Maccabees moment, even though the name would sound strange for a sports team to someone unfamiliar with biblical history. A Jew called Judas Maccabeus lived with his four brothers and their families in the Judean Hills near Jerusalem, then a Seleucid outpost, around a century and a half before the birth of Christ. The celebration of Hanukkah, which commemorates a Maccabee insurrection against the Seleucids, who limited Jewish religious practice, is responsible for the degree to which this separatist tribe is remembered today. The “miracle of the oil,” the discovery of Holy Temple lamp oil that should have burnt for one day but lasted eight, put a stop to the uprising. The Maccabees, on the other hand, were nearly as angry with their Jewish Hellenist co-religionists, who were more assimilationist and secularist, since the family believed that the common Jews of the period had become too much like their invaders.
Gabriel Leifer and the modern-day Maccabees have gotten a lot of press recently because, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, there is still a perception that Jewish sportsmen are few and far between. AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski
The assimilationist Jews, according to The First Book of Maccabees, were warming to the Hellenists’ unusually severe sports culture. Gladiator battles, nude wrestling, and pagan deity sacrifices were all considered corrupting and eventually prohibited by Jewish law. “Historically, there has been a lot of friction between Judaism and sports, particularly spectator sports,” says Elianna Yolkut, lifelong learning rabbi of Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, D.C. Yolkut is the co-host of the podcast “Not Your Jewish Mother,” which just aired an episode discussing sports and Judaism. “Physical health was promoted,” she continues, “but spectator sports were seen as’sitting with the scornful’ by the Talmud’s rabbis.” Those Talmudists aren’t fond on boo-birds.
As a result, naming a Jewish team after the Maccabees seems to be a contradiction. Unless… Yeshiva history professor Jeffrey Gurock adds, “They were fundamentally anti-sports.” “However, it isn’t the whole tale.”
It’s not always the case. In reality, the story behind the reintroduction of the Maccabees name in Jewish sports — involving, among other things, the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball juggernaut and the quadrennial worldwide Maccabiah Games — may help to explain why a Division III school’s winning run is even newsworthy. The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, and the New York Daily News, among other publications, have covered yeshiva basketball in recent months.
To put that in perspective, the 45-game winning streak of the women’s basketball team at Hope College, a Division III Christian liberal arts institution in Holland, Michigan, receives little national attention. (Vote for the Flying Dutch!)
Successful Christian athletes, on the other hand, do not seem to be startling or unusual. Even today, the concept of Jewish athletic skill is met with skepticism, if not outright ridicule. The subject has definitely provided grist for pop culture comedy (see, for example, the above-mentioned “Airplane!” scene). There’s also regular culture. Judaism was incompatible with the “harmonious development of spiritual and physical activity,” according to none other than Sigmund Freud (in “Moses and Monotheism”). It’s no accident that Sigmund Freud was Jewish. In movies, television programs, novels, and podcasts, Jews have often been the first to insult Jewish sportsmen. (The three Jewish brothers David and Jerry Zucker, as well as Jim Abrahams, who wrote and directed “Airplane!”)
What’s interesting about this cliché is how persistent it is in the face of evidence. Beginning with multiple medalists in the 1896 Olympics and continuing through heavyweight boxing champion Max Baer, Hall of Fame quarterbacks Sid Luckman and Benny Friedman, baseball legends Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and swimming legend Mark Spitz, Jewish athletes have had a strong presence in the modern era. Three Jewish baseball players (Atlanta’s Max Fried and Joc Pederson, and Houston’s Alex Bregman) appeared in the World Series this autumn. The list goes on and on, like an Adam Sandler Hanukkah song, and includes the currently pertinent fact that Ossie Schectman of the New York Knicks, a Jew, scored the first basket of the predecessor league to the NBA. (There’s even a documentary called “The First Basket” about it.) In 1946, Schectman’s background was unremarkable, partially because hardly one was interested in the fledgling Basketball Association of America, but largely because Jews had been a power in the sport for three decades. Gurock wrote a scholarly paper on the St. John’s “Wonder Five,” which dominated collegiate basketball in the late 1920s and had four Jews in the starting lineup, which has yet to be published.
Despite this achievement, acceptance of the notion that Jews are no poorer at sports than any other ethnic or racial group is proving difficult. Which leads us back to the Maccabees and a guy called Max Nordau, the late-nineteenth-century founder of the Jewish sports movement. Nordau was attempting to inspire his fellow religious believers, but he was also fighting against the broader unfavorable worldwide image of Jews, which was considerably more nuanced and, all too often, insidious: at best, bookish and weak, more often, sad and sneaky. This was a reputation built over centuries, and it didn’t help that much of the world’s Jewry lived in Eastern Europe at the time, victims of pogroms and other deadly terrors that reinforced the idea of the feeble Jew (later bolstered by the Holocaust).
Nordau invented the term “Muscular Judaism” and picked the Maccabees of two millennia ago as his model for the ideal contemporary Jew when speaking at the Second Zionist Congress in 1898, which finally led to the establishment of the State of Israel. It makes no difference if he realized the Maccabees were anti-sports; they were powerful, aggressive, and Jewish. The Maccabees were connected with sports from then on, at least among Jews. However, the shift was so difficult that Yeshiva sports, which began in earnest with basketball in 1935 and today comprises 15 men’s and women’s teams, didn’t get the name until the 1970s. (The “Blue and Whites” or “Mighty Mites” were the team’s previous names.)
It’s worth mentioning that Nordau based his notion of Jewish empowerment on the “Muscular Christianity” movement that had begun a few decades earlier in England to combat a perceived moral rot throughout the British Empire. (Amateur boxer, football aficionado, and future US President Theodore Roosevelt were among its international fans.) The Young Men’s Christian Association, which still exists today, was one of the many offshoots of this powerful concept. Of course, James Naismith devised the game that the strong Jews of the Yeshiva University Maccabees currently dominate in 1891 at the International YMCA Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Yeshiva was voted No. 2 in D3sports.com’s preseason poll (behind Randolph-Macon, which is riding its own 17-game winning streak). If former YU athletic director Joe Bednarsh had his way, the Maccabees would not be on anyone’s radar. Bednarsh, who is currently the assistant dean of students at Yeshiva University, was hesitant to appoint head coach Elliot Steinmetz at first.
“It’s a sweet tale,” Bednarsh says over Zoom, a tiny respite from a continuing epidemic that has contributed to the odd character of Yeshiva’s run, which spans two seasons yet does not include a national championship. The Macs went on a 29-game winning streak after losing their first game of the 2019-20 season, reaching the Sweet 16 before the Little Big Dance was postponed due to COVID-19. In a virus-shortened season last year, YU won seven additional games.
“When we initially spoke to him,” Bednarsh says of a spring 2014 phone chat with Steinmetz, who was coaching at a Jewish high school on Long Island, “I didn’t even want to bring him in.” “On the phone interview with the hiring committee, he did not do well. He was clearly on a mission, and instead of addressing my questions, he kept turning to the topics he wanted to discuss. That seemed to me to be a terrible omen. I can now admit that I was horribly, humiliatingly incorrect. I didn’t understand what he was trying to say because I didn’t understand what he was saying.”
In person, Bednarsh claims Steinmetz impressed him, but given the coach’s daring — YU winning its first conference championship, YU challenging for a national championship — the administration may be understood for being obtuse. The Maccabees had already won a season before Steinmetz joined, in 2006-07. Steinmetz, a full-time real estate lawyer and part-time basketball coach, landed the position by upending Yeshiva’s sports self-perception. The comparatively limited number of Jews who make up the school’s successful basketball recruitment pool, according to Steinmetz, 41, “was seen as a disadvantage.” “I viewed it as a potential benefit. These children are exceptional.”
Elliot Steinmetz had a dream of expanding the Yeshiva recruitment pool and persuading the best Orthodox athletes to “remain home” and play rather than go to Division I and sit on the bench. AP Photo/Jessie Wardarski
You don’t have to be Jewish to attend Yeshiva University, which began as a Jewish primary school in the 1880s, evolved into a rabbinical seminary a decade later, and eventually became a recognized institution in 1928. Few people, apart from devout Jews, would agree to pursue its dual secular-religious curriculum, which requires a working grasp of Hebrew and, in certain subjects, Aramaic (an arcane mix of Hebrew and Arabic). The effort and religious duties are unpleasant and even outdated for most Jews. Although some non-observant Jews attend the institution, and many secular Jews and students of all faiths attend the university’s excellent graduate schools, the majority of undergrads are religiously observant to some degree. This depletes an already depleted pool of potential recruits.
Furthermore, even for a Division III institution, Yeshiva’s subordination of sports to practically everything else is remarkable. “There is no pressure on coaches from boosters,” says athletic director Greg Fox. “Coaches do not exert any pressure on instructors or admissions officers. Zero. Student-athletes are required to complete both their Torah studies and general studies requirements as part of their undergraduate program.” Most days, practice begins at 6 a.m., just before morning prayer sessions. As a consequence, a group of players emerges as unusually smart and balanced, often to the point of absurdity. Leifer, who is 22 years old, is preparing for his last season while juggling the responsibilities of his second year of marriage, his first year of graduate school, and the first months of a full-time work as a real estate tax associate for the multinational consulting firm PwC. “A scouting report on me would read, ‘Slow but methodical,’” Leifer explains. “In general, that’s who I am. I take care of whatever has to be done.”
Kevin Spann, who coached rival St. Joseph’s College-Long Island from 2014 to 2019, saw a change in the Maccabees’ players’ mentality. Spann, who played guard for LIU Post, feels that Yeshiva’s players are more mature than the usual college basketball player (formerly C.W. Post). “My guys looked like they’d just gotten out of prom, but Elliot had grown men who liked basketball and were terrific at it, but who played with a feeling of liberty because it wasn’t the main thing in their life; they were also more tougher to scout since Elliot gets players from all around.”
That’s the thing with YU’s recruitment pool: it’s tiny, but it’s national, if not international in scope. While the majority of the Skyline Conference’s clubs are from the Northeast, Steinmetz considers global Jewry to be his domain. (Players from California, Florida, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Texas, and Israel are on YU’s roster this season.) As a prep coach, Steinmetz saw that Orthodox youngsters from Jewish high schools who were capable of playing at a high level were opting for Division I institutions but then spending the majority of their time on the bench. He was a member of the YU basketball team at the same time when Tamir Goodman, called “The Jewish Jordan,” was attracting a lot of attention. As an 11th-grader at the Talmudical Academy of Baltimore, Goodman, who was Orthodox, was regarded as the country’s 25th greatest prep player. He turned down an offer from Maryland amid clashes with the coaching staff, including disagreements about how he should manage the team’s calendar, which included Sabbath-related events. (The Maccabees’ schedule is accommodated by the Skyline Conference.) Goodman finally earned a Division I scholarship from Towson University, but within two years he was playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel.
“‘Slow but methodical,’ for example, might be a scouting report on me. In general, that’s who I am. I take care of whatever has to be done.” Gabriel Leifer is a writer from the United States.
Steinmetz was well aware of the challenges and regarded them as opportunities. “I figured if I could convince top-level Orthodox youngsters to’stay home,’ we might develop something amazing,” says the coach, whose squad has won 69 percent of its games since he took over. “The caliber of basketball being played may even attract non-Orthodox youth.” He vigorously recruited at Jewish high schools around the nation, as well as at YU’s annual Red Sarachek Basketball Tournament, the group’s most prominent tournament. (Sarachek was a mentor to Hall of Fame Knicks coach Red Holzman and St. John’s icon Lou Carnesecca while coaching at YU for decades.)
Steinmetz is a calm and methodical recruiter. “After a major victory in my senior year, he came up to me,” Leifer says. “He inquired as to what I believed was the most enjoyable aspect of my playing. I began sorting through my belongings. ‘I’m a big man who can shoot threes.’ No answer. ‘I can take it to the basket.’ No response. ‘No, try another guess,’ he replies, to which I respond, ‘Please, just tell me.’ ‘It’s the way you view the court,’ he explains. He then asked whether I recalled what he claimed was my strongest attribute during my first session with him. Obviously, I did.” During his time at YU, Leifer has averaged almost six assists per game.
Schools in bigger leagues were also interested in the fifth-year starter. Steinmetz explains, “We regard recruitment as a development.” “If you continue to bring in better players, the players you bring in will continue to improve. Unless you come across a once-in-a-generation talent.”
Brad Turell went to the house of his old friend and client Kiki VanDeWeghe, who had just relocated to Encino, California, from New York, a decade or so earlier. Turell wanted the two-time NBA All-Star to put his 15-year-old son, Jack, through his paces as a rising prep player. Ryan, Jack’s younger brother, accompanied him as usual. VanDeWeghe, a 13-year NBA veteran who averaged 19.7 points per game, worked out both boys for an hour and then drew Brad apart. “He’s the one to keep an eye on,” he continued, motioning to Ryan.
“You could see he was extraordinary at the time,” VanDeWeghe adds. To the best of his ability, he still holds that opinion now. VanDeWeghe, who served as the NBA’s executive vice president of basketball operations for eight years, has just joined the league’s executive advisory board. “Even if his father is a buddy, I have to be cautious when discussing a collegiate athlete. Ryan, on the other hand, is an excellent shooter.”
There’s a lot of footage available showcasing Yeshiva basketball and Turell, but it’s impossible to gauge his chances based on it, considering his obvious physical and talent advantages over the rest of the field. He’s just taller, faster, and more observant of the court. The success he’s had back home, in pickup runs and summer games against Division I players and even some professionals, is a greater measure of his ability. Yeshiva assistant coach Michael Sweetney, a first-round choice of the Knicks in 2003 who played four years in the league, adds, “I’ve got pals in L.A. telling me he’s got the talents.” “Players from the NBA and WNBA. They are aware of what is genuine and what is not.”
Is Turell a legitimate NBA prospect? That’s difficult to say — and skepticism is usually justified in such talks — but Turell averaged 26 points per game for Yeshiva last season, connecting on 42 percent of his three-point attempts. His performance in the COVID-interrupted competition in 2020 raised more eyebrows than anybody could have predicted. Laurel Turell believes providence intervened at this point. YU’s early-round Friday afternoon game against Worcester Polytechnic Institute on March 6 would not typically have drawn NBA executives, but it was one of the first games, college or pro, played in front of empty bleachers in the early days of the epidemic. As a consequence, the professionals were instructed to tune in to the webcast to observe what it would be like if the league followed suit. The viewers were treated to an offensive outburst. Turell finished with 41 points on 13-of-16 shooting, including 7-for-9 from beyond the arc. “Ryan Turell had one of the finest games I’ve seen in Division III basketball in the last several years,” WPI coach Chris Bartley said after YU’s 102-78 victory.
Ryan Turell, left, and his brother Jack, who both played at Yeshiva, have been working with dribbling and shooting instructors since they were youngsters in a home where basketball and Judaism were both important. Courtesy Turell’s clan
It was a classic Turell and predictable Yeshiva performance, which is to say, quite unexpected. On offense, since there are no defined offensive plays or court positions — “We don’t have rules,” Steinmetz explains, “we have ideas” — players create screens and make cuts quickly, frustrating opponents while rewarding screen-setters with open looks. “”Everything is concentrated around the ball in most attacks,” Steinmetz explains, “and you bring the activity to it.” If you have a dribbling guard, you may bring him a screen and let him pick what to do next, whether he wants to go to the hoop, pull up, or kick it. That is not something we do. We are the ones who bring the ball into play. In the last four years, we’ve only used a handful of ball screens.”
Steinmetz is a firm believer in his strategy. Last season, when Leifer took his first charge against Saint Joseph, YU was down at halftime and not playing well. Turell says, “Most coaches would have been shouting at halftime.” “‘OK, listen, they threw their punch, and we’re going to throw a punch back,’ Elliot said. All we have to do now is run our things, and everything will be OK.’” Yeshiva came back from an eight-point deficit to win by nine. The coach poses as the Rosenberg & Steinmetz law firm partner he is, in contrast to the intensity he requires on the court. Turell describes him as “the calmest coach I’ve ever played under.”
A YouTube channel called “Slappin’ Glass” has a 25-minute video that utilizes the Maccabees to illustrate the motion offense. The Macs essentially run a modified version of what Bobby Knight ran at Indiana back in the day, which was itself a modified version of what Hank Iba created at Oklahoma A&M even farther back. It’s a technique that demands dedicated instructors who like teaching and athletic athletes who are quick learners in every iteration. “It’s not easy,” Steinmetz adds, “but it’s easy to run if you have clever students.”
And it’s significantly more difficult to defend, since most basketball players are instructed to keep one eye on the person they’re defending while the other is on the ball. The person who just put up the screen you’re going to run into has no third eye. “The player with the ball is the threat with most opponents,” Spann explains. “It’s the four men without the ball for Yeshiva because they work so hard to get fantastic shots.”
“We have no idea what we’re going to do,” says Ofek Reef, a 6-1 junior guard for YU. “It’s really difficult for opponents to figure it out.”
If Turell is the “stay-at-home” Orthodox candidate with Division I potential, Reef is the kind of player Steinmetz had in mind throughout his recruiting process. “If I’m on you, I swear you’re not going to enjoy it,” says the self-described “hound” of a defender from Plano, Texas. Reef was reared in a non-observant Israeli home and had minimal knowledge of Yeshiva. “‘Look, you can either go to a D-I college and sit on the bench until you’re a junior, or you can come here and play 25 to 30 minutes as a freshman,’ Elliott said. Reef arrived, was voted Rookie of the Year by the Skyline, and now boasts of having completed the second-highest level of Judaic studies. Reef, who has many tattoos, which are banned in orthodox Judaism, adds, “It’s not like I’m suddenly Orthodox.” “However, you learn to appreciate other people’s decisions, and they reciprocate. It’s one of those things that happens off the court that has a beneficial impact on the court.”
There’s also a lengthy series of W’s.
JUDAISM IS A STREAKY RELIGION. For at than 3,000 years, Jews have circumcised their 8-day-old boys, according to custom. They’ve been singing the Torah in synagogues regularly since at least 2,500 B.C.E., according to documented reports. Even minor rituals, such as lighting Hanukkah lights for eight nights in a row, calculating the 49 days of the Omer beginning on the second day of Passover, and reciting the Kaddish prayer every day for 11 months following a parent’s death, are burdened by the need for consistency.
As a result, it’s fascinating to witness the individuals linked with Yeshiva’s news-making winning streak’s calculated nonchalance.
“It’s nice and everything, but at the end of the day, it’d be better to be national champions,” Turell says.
“It’s a 7 on a scale of 1-10: good to be acknowledged, but not the objective we were going for,” Leifer says.
“It was fantastic when we didn’t have anything else to play for during COVID,” Reef says, “but now we’re just thinking about a national championship.”
“I’m not really thinking about it,” Steinmetz says.
As the victories — 36 to far — have piled up, the Yeshiva players have been happy to share the credit. Getty Images/Will Newton for The Washington Post
Naturally, fans have mixed feelings regarding streaks. Jesse Walker, a marketing professor at Ohio State, and Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell, conducted nine studies involving over 2,600 people for a paper published last year in the “Journal of Personality and Social Psychology” titled “The streaking star effect: Why people want superior performance by individuals to continue more than identical performance by groups.” Individual athletes’ streaks seem to be significantly more fascinating than team streaks, as the title indicates. (If you don’t believe me, ask ten baseball fans who has the longest consecutive-game hitting streak in Major League Baseball history.) Then, once they mention Joe DiMaggio, inquire as to which club has the longest winning streak in baseball. If they don’t respond, remind them the New York Giants won 26 consecutive games in 1916, which was a controversial feat at the time.)
The study of Walker and Gilovich examined outstanding achievements in sports, business, and other areas. Their findings found that viewers often attributed athletes’ (or, say, CEOs’) success streaks to the people themselves, while attributing team (or company) success to other situational conditions. “Making linkages between people and performance is a lot simpler than it is with teams,” Gilovich explains. “We believe we know where the credit belongs, or at least we think we do.”
Credit attribution is likely to play a significant part in winning streaks, and it may help to explain the intangible but enduring concept of team chemistry. A team of researchers led by Northwestern postdoctoral fellow Satyam Mukherjee argue in a 2019 study published in “Nature Human Behaviour” titled “Prior shared success predicts victory in team competitions” that “previous relations and shared experiences among team members… significantly improves the odds of team winning in all sports beyond individual talent.” [Italics added by me.] To put it another way, objectively talented athletes are a must-have for any extended run of success, but they aren’t sufficient. (Ask any Kentucky basketball fan.) Relationships are necessary. Mukherjee and his colleagues propose that such linkages “increase mutual awareness of individual habits, tactics, and skills, and hence boost team coordination and strategy,” based on historical data and rosters from the NBA, MLB, EPL, and IPL (Indian cricket).
“We have no idea what we’re going to do, so defenders are having a hard time figuring it out.” Reef of Ofek
Turell is convinced. “A few seasons back, we played a game versus Fairleigh Dickinson,” he remembers. “At the end, we were down one, and Gabe was wide open, but I took the shot and missed. We were defeated. The following season, we faced Sarah Lawrence in a similar situation at the end of the game — we were down by one — but this time I passed to Gabe, who hit a 3-pointer, and we won. When it came to the ball, I always wanted it, but I also knew Gabe. I was well aware of his capabilities.”
Given the team’s remarkable homogeneity, Steinmetz believes that shared culture plays a role in the Maccabees’ success. “Enough of these individuals come from comparable backgrounds,” he adds. “It makes a difference just because they have a common Jewish heritage and take pleasure in it.”
Something else might be at play as well. David Myers is a psychology professor at Hope College and the author of a widely used introduction to the field (“Psychology,” now in its 13th edition). It’s uncommon for a professor from such a tiny university to make such a large effect on such a big issue. Even more unique is the fact that Myers teaches at the school with the longest winning run in men’s or women’s college basketball. Myers, a sports aficionado, is no stranger to Hope women’s basketball games, so he’s considered streaking teams. He mentioned a psychological bias known as “self-serving attribution” when presenting the shared-success research. This phenomena causes individuals to give themselves credit when things go well and to blame others when things go wrong. This inclination might lead to pointing blame at officials, the weather, or even teammates on losing sports teams. However, in winning teams, the “self” is plural, “we” rather than “my,” and credit is shared. When it comes to naming their teammates’ skills, Yeshiva’s players, who sometimes be stumped when asked to explain their own, are a riot. “A significant uniting component is working together toward a same objective,” Myers argues. “Especially when you’re successful, it generates trust.”
Because it helps to retain cohesiveness when things become tough, trust may be the most important part of team chemistry for triumph. “Even when we’re down, there’s a feeling that someone will come through,” says Brian Morehouse, the Hope women’s head coach. “When things become tough, it’s easy to give up on yourself. If you’re on a team where someone is always finding things out, it’s simpler to have trust.”
Reef explains: “Coach Steinmetz’s method instills confidence in his players. I don’t believe we’ve ever been in a panic as a group. We feel that if we handle our operations properly, no one will be able to remain with us.”
On Saturday night, the Maccabees will debut the 2021-22 version of their lauded (and raucous) motion offensive. ESPN’s Sara Naomi Lewkowicz
ON A SMALL SCALE The Maccabees are putting themselves through their paces in the first official practice of the 2021-22 season on a Thursday night in mid-October. It’s a relatively quiet start to the Midnight Madness season. Due of the epidemic, there are no fans in attendance. (At games, they will be permitted.)
Steinmetz spends the most of the 90-minute practice teaching the new players about motion offense. Jordan Armstrong, who played three years at Oberlin College, is one of them. He’ll almost certainly start for Yeshiva, which will bolster an already large-for-the-division squad. Armstrong, a first-year graduate student at YU’s Katz School of Science and Health, is another example of an athlete who may not have considered playing for the Yellow Jackets before Steinmetz came. In fact, he considered attending Yeshiva as an undergrad for a brief while, but “the dual curriculum was not what I was looking for.” Now, on the other hand, he’s ecstatic to be a member of a basketball powerhouse. “I’m not going to take ownership of a 37-game run if we win our opening,” he adds. “However, the prospect of competing for a national championship is enticing.”
Armstrong and the other players go through a variety of drills, the majority of which include screens, cuts, and curls. The lack of formal plays necessitates a great deal of communication on the court. When a player raises his hand to set a screen, he also yells out the name of the teammate he’s attempting to free up. Steinmetz is a stickler for routine, not only in practice but also in games. “To communicate that much on the court, you have to have a certain amount of confidence,” says Spann, who quit coaching to work on business initiatives with Sixers player Danny Green. “It can be frightening.”
Turell puts down a dunk or sinks a 3 from 30 feet with barely a wriggle of net strings, and the season’s potential comes into focus. When the first game that matters kicks off Saturday evening at Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, no one raises the possibility of a 37th straight victory. Reef adds, “We don’t want to go out like Gonzaga did.” “No one will notice about the streak if we lose five or six games this year and win the national title.”
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