By Savannah Williams
Jewish basketball players from around the country were feeling the heat as the competition dialed up for bracket games in the National Hillel Basketball Tournament.
The matches, which ran from 9 p.m. Saturday to 12:30 a.m. Sunday, spread through an otherwise quiet corner of campus, taking over the Xfinity Center and commandeering a few courts in the School of Public Health building.
In the Xfinity Center, players observed an intermission around 10:30 p.m. for a Havdalah ceremony, followed by a special presentation by Gift of Life, one of the tournament’s sponsors. This bone marrow and stem cell donation registry was introducing a cancer survivor to her stem cell donor – a Maryland alumna who signed up for the program at NHBT in 2015.
In both arenas, as the night wore on, the pressure built up for teams to earn their spots in Sunday’s semi-finals.
Zach Leff, a sophomore journalism major from The University of Texas at Austin, was watching teams gear up for their first games in the School of Public Health around 9 p.m. He said his university doesn’t usually participate in NHBT, but their Hillel’s new executive director, Maiya Chard-Yaron, had talked the tournament up and gotten students excited about it. Chard-Yaron is a former assistant director of Maryland Hillel, who left in 2017.
Leff said his team braved a three-hour flight, four-hour time difference and 35 degree temperature drop to play in the tournament this weekend.
“There were so many teams, so many people around [on Friday], it was very chaotic – enthusiastic, though. It’s been a little more mellow today,” Leff said. “There’s less teams, meaning there’s just less of an atmosphere.”
Despite the quietude of the night, Leff said his team members were still ready to bring their best to the court.
“We got the number one seed on our bracket,” Leff said. “We’re ready to prove we’re actually that good.”
Jonah Karoll, a freshman international affairs major from George Washington University, was warming up in the same space, waiting for the team he would be opposing to find the right court.
Karoll said his team won two out of the three preliminary games on Friday and was therefore playing in the second tier of brackets, even though he wished they had made it into the top tier.
“At the end of the day, you come to these tournaments to have fun and to compete and just play ball with friends and peers,” Karoll said. “I didn’t really come into this tournament thinking, ‘I want to win the championship,’ but it’s just a thing. If you come to play basketball, you want to win the championship.”
Jacob Fortinsky, a freshman from Harvard University who hasn’t yet declared his major, said he wasn’t expected the stiff competition his team met on Saturday.
“We just lost in double overtime to Chicago, on a rough buzzer-beater, but overall, a great weekend. I had a lot of fun today,” Fortinsky said. “I think it’s more disciplined ball than I guess I’m used to. Jews play differently than non-Jews, so it’s fun to play with like 300 other people who play identically.”
Fortinsky couldn’t quite put his finger on what qualities Jewish basketball players shared, but he said he enjoyed the overall sense of Jewish community the tournament provided.
“It was great to see the Maryland Jewish community. Definitely not a typical weekend, I’m sure, but nonetheless, it was a lot of fun,” Fortinsky said. “It’s definitely very different than the Harvard Jewish community, and it’s cool to see people from all over. I’m excited that I get three more years of this.”
Fortinsky joked that the only downside of the weekend was the distance of his team’s hotel from the Xfinity Center.
“I don’t know if it was on purpose because they wanted us to lose, but we walked like miles to get here, because the game was right after Shabbos ended,” Fortinsky said. He laughed before adding: “I think it was a little anti-Semitic.”