By Eli Davis
In 2011, some University of Maryland students decided to organize a basketball tournament that would bring together Jewish college students from around the country for a weekend of competition and a celebration of Judaism.
Four years later, the National Hillel Basketball Tournament is the largest intercollegiate basketball tournament for Jewish students. This year’s tournament is March 28-30.
The weekend starts with Shabbat dinner, and games will begin after Shabbat at Ritchie Coliseum and the Armory. On Sunday, the weekend concludes with a men’s and women’s champion- winners claim bragging rights and take the “Kiddish Cup” championship trophy back to their respective campus.
Michael Shrager, a co-chair of the tournament, was one of those students behind the formation of NHBT. Shrager has seen the number of participating college and universities double over the years.
In the tournament’s inaugural year, just 20 different schools were represented by both men’s and women’s team. This year, the NHBT board expects over 40 different colleges to represent themselves at the tournament.
As the number of teams has grown, the tournament has picked up national attention. Joseph Tuchman, another co-chair of the tournament, is proud of this year’s 17 sponsors, including Under Armour, Gatorade, Muscle Milk, The Leader Family Fund, Pepsi Co., Hapoel Jersualem, Bobble, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Klipped, Fuelstrip, Soom Foods, Ben Yehuda, Documented Video Productions, WJW, BJW, Leveling the Playing Field, and Pulitzer Promotions.
Seth Finkelstein, Jewish student life coordinator for Maryland Hillel, believes NHBT’s new sponsors bring a “cool factor” to this year’s tournament, which welcomes a handful of new teams including University of Southern California, University of Kansas, University of Iowa, and Duke University, among others.
“The tournament uses basketball as a common ground to bring Jews together,” Shrager said.
“I love the environment. After bonding all Shabbat with everyone, fans and players pack the gym to watch you play. It’s really an awesome feeling seeing how many people show up,” said Jonny Nulman, a sophomore at the University of Maryland who is participating in the tournament for his second year. Nulman, who also serves on the NHBT board as the Campus Recruitment Executive, said he “would love to take down Duke” in the tournament.
The weekend has turned into a family affair for Talya Lerner, a junior at the University of Maryland. Lerner and her twin sister, who attends Barnard College, have been competing in the tournament since their freshman year. “It is always nice to see and play against her,” Lerner said. Along with the new teams and sponsors, this year’s tournament will also welcome the Lerner parents, who will be in College Park to watch their daughters compete.
Tuchman gave this year’s tournament the slogan of “bigger and better,” something everyone involved is confident they will achieve.
In accordance with the slogan, Bruce Levenson, owner of the Atlanta Hawks, is attending as a guest speaker. Last year, the tournament was witness to a video message from NBA commissioner, David Stern, in which he called the tournament “exciting, remarkable, and an extraordinary event.” Kevin Blackistone, of ESPN’s Around the Horn, appears in the opening of this year’s promotional video.
Along with Shrager, Finkelstein has been involved with NHBT since its inception. Finkelstein admitted that in the first year of the tournament the board members were unsure of their goal. Now, with a board of over 20 University of Maryland students, they created “a perfect storm of logistics and energy,” Finkelstein said, that he is confident will lead to a successful tournament weekend.
This year the NHBT board is making the tournament about more than just the players. Fans will be part of the action in a 3-point shooting contest and can show their school pride with sign-making and face-painting stations.
Finkelstein made it a personal goal of his to attract all the “big Hillels” from around the country. He is excited to see it becoming a reality and views it as an excellent networking opportunity for Jewish students from some of the biggest college and universities in the country to come together for a weekend of basketball and Judaism.