Some people of a certain age remember when a local bread company would advertise that its product helped build strong bodies 12 ways. Well, basketball coaches Yoni Freiden and Noam VanderWalde are mainly interested in two ways: helping build up boys mentally and physically.
At least, that’s it for now.
At the urging of team mom Ruth Greenbaum, who wanted her son to play basketball year-round, Yoni began searching for a league for his band of 12-year-old boys. The Memphis Jewish Community Center only ran a league in the winter, so that didn’t help. And other leagues held most of their games on Shabbos. “That wouldn’t work,” he said.
That’s when AAU (The Amateur Athletic Union) saved the day. Hoops City basketball club, founded by current Memphis Tiger basketball assistant coach Mike Miller and former NBA player Ernie Kuyper, was formed to encourage players to be their best – on and off the court. That sounded good to both Yoni and Noam. Plus, it met one of their objectives – a league that ran all year. So, as Yoni is quick to point out, that’s how the first Jewish AAU basketball team, the Lennox Legends, were born.
“I want them to learn how to play, but I want them to have useful and productive lives,” Yoni said. He’s hoping that their year-round schedule and their ease with playing together – most of them have grown up with each other – might give them an advantage once they start playing in the more competitive high school tournaments. By that time, perhaps they’ll be ready to challenge for the overall crown at the various Jewish tournaments around the city and country.
The team consists of players ages 11-12 from the Margolin Hebrew Academy/Feinstone Yeshiva of the South, Bornblum Jewish Community School and the Memphis Jewish Community Center.
“We played a team called the War Eagles, last season. Those kids have a goal to play for a Division I team and to play in the NBA,” he said about their opponents. “If we’d have made a few shots at the end, we would have beaten them. My kids probably have no shot, but I wanted them to see what hard works gets you, and that it pays off. You don’t have to be the best in the world, but just the best in the Jewish world.”
“We only won a few games,” Noam said of last season’s first effort. “But we see tremendous improvement in their play. That’s really the point of playing in this competitive league. We’ve always played lesser or equal talent in the past. Now, we’re going against these tougher guys, and my players know that they’ve got to work at it, and that it’s not going to be easy.
“The players will need to go to the JCC and practice instead of playing on their Xbox,” he continued. “Hopefully, these kids will be the future MACS or Bucs,” he said referring to the Jewish day schools – the Margolin Hebrew Academy, the JCC and Bornblum Jewish Community School.
Earlier this year, they played against seven other teams. Beginning in August, Yoni and Noam know their kids will be challenged this season by equally stiff competition. The teams are basically the same; maybe a mix of new challengers but little change.
“Wherever the competition comes from, our guys will be ready,” the two coaches agreed. “Wherever there’s a court or a net, hopefully we’ll be there; be it the MJCC, the Hebrew Academy or any of the league schools.”
“The best part of playing in this league is that we get to meet some of the future NBA players,” said shooting guard Jack Kampf. After one of their games, the team got to meet incoming Tiger freshman DJ Jeffries, get his autograph and even take a selfie.
The league started in August with games set for Lausanne, Memphis University School and Briarcrest Schools.