By Eugene “Jesse” Nash IV
About 50 students in colorful pennies gathered around the ceremonial candle at 8:59 p.m. in Reckord Armory for Havdalah Saturday night. The room that had minutes before been filled with players from across the nation warming up for their games was nearly silent.
After a prayer, the candle was blown out by National Hillel Basketball Tournament staff and the top-tier games of the 2019 tournament began, kicking off a series of games that would go through the night.
NHBT is a student-run four-day event founded in 2010 that brings Jewish students from colleges across the nation to this university to connect over basketball. This year brought over 30 men’s teams and six women’s teams, ranging from the University of Texas to Johns Hopkins University.
The room ignited with emotion and energy. Off came the sweatshirts, and on came the sleeveless jerseys. The sound of bouncing basketballs echoed through the four-story open space room, and cheers and chatter filled the air.
Minutes later, Ben Kaplan of the Harvard University team started a livestream on his cellphone for the viewers back home. As the Harvard Hillel team put two in the net against Touro College, Kaplan and his teammates on the bench jumped up and cheered, “All right, let’s go.”
On the closest court to the main entrance, one of this university’s top-tier teams in red began its game against one of the blue Yeshiva University teams.
Across the room, Kansas University faced the University of Chicago, which boasted two players from the university’s Division III team.
Despite the speed and intensity of Joel Gutovitz, a Kansas player who had donned an American flag bandana and glided along the court to rap music during practice, Kansas was off to a losing start.
As sweat flowed down Gutovitz’s skin, Kansas struggled to take the lead and never did, falling to the number eight seed Chicago 45-24.
“We fought hard, I’m really proud of my team, we went 3-0 in pool play but more importantly, we have had a blast this whole time and that’s really what it’s all about,” Gutovitz said. “Kansas takes pride in coming and being rowdy and bringing energy and having a blast, so I think we definitely have been doing it,” added the senior human biology and pre-med major.
On the sidelines of the next court over, the second-tier Penn State Hillel players watched the Harvard game in the minutes before the start of their own game against a second-tier Maryland team.
“We’re looking to win this. We are going 100 percent full force,” said Joel Vardon, a Penn State sophomore supply chain management major who grew up 20 minutes away from this university. “It’s just great to play in front of my friends and family again.”
Penn State fell to Maryland 33-26.
Two courts over, this university’s top-tier team beat its Yeshiva University opponent after a strange call that stopped the game for several minutes shortly after halftime.
“No one thought we had a chance,” said Coby Citron, a senior pre-dental and psychology major, about his team that was originally seeded last in the top-tier class. “It was definitely a very heated, aggressive basketball game but I think we matched their intensity and came out on top, we shot the lights out.”
By 11 p.m., hundreds of students filled in every foot of the sidelines around the games. Young men, women and parents chatted on the sidelines, dribbled balls and watched the energy on the courts. Before midnight, Aaron Kraiman arrived in his popular head-to-toe Maryland flag morphsuit fitted with Maryland flag shorts, a kippah and a Maryland flag cape.
The night was not without problems, though. In the second round of games, a Yeshiva University player collapsed on the ground in pain and had to be taken to the hospital in an ambulance.
Last year, the tournament games were held in the Xfinity Center, but this year, the location reverted to the Reckord Armory and Ritchie Coliseum, where games have been held in previous years.
In December, Yedidyah Samuels told Mitzpeh that he was working on getting the games back in the Xfinity Center. Samuels, who is on the NHBT Committee for Events and Attractions, said the board succeeded for the preliminary games Friday but could not secure it for Saturday night.
Still, Samuels didn’t consider the end result this year a loss. “There are pros and cons [to both],” he said. The Armory provides better space and a more central place to bring everything together, Samuels said.
The tournament has picked up a reputation among college Hillels, Jewish students and their parents around the nation every year it has carried on. This year, the unofficial coach of the Kansas team and a former Terp, Dave Herbet, said he came out despite having no children on the team because a friend urged him to try it.
“My best friend came last year to watch his nephew,” Herbet said, “[and] he said, ‘why don’t you guys coach us.’”
Multiple students echoed the sentiment that the tournament Saturday night was a good environment.
“It’s great to be with an amazing Jewish community,” Gutovitz said of the tournament. “It’s just awesome all around.”