Monday, April 10, 2006

Jerome Habel Gone to San Diego?

The story of Jerome Habel is too long for me to go into detail. Habel, a 6'9'' freak of a power forward, is headed to San Diego State next season. But to understand why this is such a big deal, you'll need a brief history of Habel. It starts almost seven years ago. Here goes:

  • Habel makes the junior varsity team at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Md. He is kicked off the team the same season because of problems with the coaching staff.
  • Habel makes the varsity team at Paint Branch, despite his problems on the JV. He is kicked off the team because of problems with the coaching staff.
  • Habel transfers to Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md., after meeting Whitman's point guard, Dan Englestad, during summer league games. He makes the varsity team, plays the entire season, leads Whitman to the state quarterfinals, and is offered scholarships from Charlotte and Virginia Commonwealth. He passes up the scholarship offers.
  • Habel transfers to Marriott Hospitality Charter High School, a D.C. public school set up for kids who want to go into hotel management. Habel has no interest in hotel management, and does not even live in Washington, D.C.. He is offered scholarships from Arizona, Cincinnati, Florida State, and others. He selects FSU. The Washington Post later runs a front-page story exposing Marriott Charter's fraudulent recruiting tactics, because a majority of the basketball team is attending a D.C. public school even though the players don't live in D.C. The team is shut down, and Habel and the other out-of-state players are forced out of the school.
  • Habel starts taking night school classes to finish his degree. He takes the SAT three times, but fails to get a qualifying score of 800 (on the 1600 point scale). He is not declared eligible to play at FSU, and loses his scholarship.
  • Habel transfers to a Palm Beach Community College in Florida, and makes the varsity team. After four games, he quits school because of problems with the coaching staff.
  • Habel transfers to St. Mary's College in Maryland, where former teammate Englestad is playing. Habel quits after five games for personal reasons.
  • Habel meets a Washington entrepreneur, who takes a chance on him and brings him to summer league tournaments across the country.
  • Habel transfers to San Bernardino Valley College as a sophomore, though I do not know when he took credits to reach sophomore status. He plays a full season on the varsity squad, is ranked the #2 junior college player in America by and is offered scholarships by Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma, and San Diego State. He chooses San Diego State.
To be sure, Habel is an unusual character. Athletically, he's gifted enough to play just about anywhere in the country, which is why he initially was able to sign with FSU out of high school. Next year, he'll be the best big man in the Mountain West Conference. But he's also a kid who's gotten kicked off five different basketball teams, and completed only two full seasons of basketball since he was 14. Next year, Habel will be considered a 'scholar athlete,' though from his résumé, it seems that the only grades he'll be receieving are from NBA scouts.

More to come on Habel as information becomes available...

Sunday, April 2, 2006

The Tribe and Farmar

Tomorrow night, I will be rooting for UCLA to win. I will not be rooting for them because of coach Ben Howland's agressive defense. I will not be rooting for them because of Cedric Bozeman, who has rebounded from an ACL injury just 17 months ago to lead his team to this championship game. I will not even be rooting for them because of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, who's name dwarfs that of GW star Pops Mensa Bonsu.

No, when UCLA takes the court Monday night, I will be rooting for them for one reason only. On that night, I will not root for UCLA with my heart.

Instead, I will root for UCLA with my schnozz.

Why is this Monday night different from all other nights, you ask? On this Monday night, we will sit down and watch UCLA point guard Jordan Farmar -- a Jew -- lead the Bruins to victory.

And when that happens, I will not be more proud.

For years, I've had to deal with a simple fact: we Jews don't have sports stars. When I met Sandy Koufax at the ACC Tournament a few years back, I was excited. Some twenty minutes later, at the same game, I met Ralph Sampson, who at the time appeared to stand at least 20 feet tall. Sampson looked like a sports star; Koufax reminded me of the crazy uncle who wants you to pull his finger during Rosh Hashana.

Yet, Koufax is as big as it gets for Jews in sports. We have Hank Greenberg, sure. But how about young, contemporary Jewish sports stars? Sasha Cohen? Lenny Krayzelburg? David Newhan?

The list, alas, is a mere Haggadah in comparison to the books that tell the stories of the great non-Jewish athletes. Jews have advised Presidents, acted in great movies, and survived in the desert for 40 years. But we just aren't very good at sports.

That's what makes Monday night so exciting for both Farmar and the Jewish people. Just listen to how one Jew -- the Jewish Sports Review's Ephraim Moxson -- went into Linda Richmond-like schpilkies over the potential of Farmar two years ago to Heeb Magazine.

'He's half-Jewish, half-Black. Bar Mitzvahed. Not only is he good, but he's the number one high school shooting guard in the nation, according to two national ratings guides. Two! He is the real deal.'
A moment to clarify things here: yes, there is such a thing as the Jewish Sports Review, and yes, they do offer extensive coverage of the Maccabi games.

Furher clarification: as Moxson noted, Farmar is actually only half-Jewish. His mother is Melinda Kolani. His father is Damon Farmar, a black baseball player who played in the Chicago Cubs' minor league system, but his parents divorced when Jordan was two. Kolani remarried to an Israeli man named Yehuda Kolani, who later took Jordan to Israel on several occasions and encouraged him throughout the Bar Mitzvah process. Here's what Jordan told one Jewish publication last December:

'I am a Jew and I grew up in a Jewish home, but now that I've left home I can say that I conduct a Jewish way of life. I try to take the good things from all religions, even though I identify with the Jewish people and feel part of it.'

Okay, so what if in the same interview he says, 'I don't define myself as a believing Jew'? We in the tribe are still very excited for this Semetic superstar. We've been denied enough over the years, and we'll gladly take Farmar.

That being said, I think now of the words that Jews sing during the Passover seder. To paraphrase, If Farmar could only bring both UCLA and the Jewish people a championship on Monday, it would be enough.

And let us all say together, 'Dayenu.'