Written By Noah Friedman
The United States Men’s Open Basketball Team is beginning its gold medal defense on July 15th in the 21st Maccabiah. Former Oklahoma State guard and current FOX Sports Radio personality Doug Gottlieb returns for his second go-round as the head coach.
Handfuls of hopefuls gathered at Duke University last August to try out for this unique opportunity. With the help of assistant coaches Skye Ettin of Princeton University and Mike Sotsky of Harvard College, the roster announcement was made on June 3rd. In this edition of the Maccabiah, the team will bolster 12 players who range from high schoolers to college graduates with experience in NCAA Divisions I and III.
Dan Schlakman, a Sharon, Mass. native, had no expectation of making the team. He got the call when he was in his dorm room at Amherst College, where he is currently in his third season as a forward.
“I think I went outside, ran around my dorm, and then got back in,” Schlakman said. “I felt like I accomplished what I really wanted to (at that point).”
Schlakman is one of two players who represented the U.S. delegation during the last Maccabiah; the other being Lior Berman. Both players won gold in Israel in the younger divisions, with Schlakman representing the U18 team , while Berman, who currently plays for his hometown Auburn Tigers in Alabama, was part of the U16 competition.
Allentown, Pa.’s own Sam Iorio has also teamed with other Jewish players in international competition. Iorio, who attends Niagara University and is pursuing his MBA, teamed up with Spencer Freedman (Century City, Calif., Harvard College graduate) in the 2019 European Maccabiah held in Budapest, Hungary. That squad defeated Team Russia, 73-63, to claim a gold medal for the delegation. Both Iorio and Freedman are returning to the United States Maccabiah basketball roster, this time in the Open competition.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to do (European Maccabiah), but I ended up staying with it and going over there and had a blast,” Iorio said. “It’s amazing what can happen in two weeks as far as brotherhood.”
For the lesser traveled contingent such as Mike Rabinovich, the challenge of embarking on a journey across the world will be different.
Rabinovich, who grew up in Hopkinton, Mass. and has played his entire basketball career in the nearby city of Worcester since 7th grade, has never been to Israel. He is looking forward to the idea of traveling halfway around the world.
“Beyond some family vacations, I’m really excited for this opportunity,” the Holy Cross center said. “Sometimes you take a trip for a few days here and there, but by the time you get there, it feels like it’s time to leave.”
Other representation on the team includes Sam Silverstein and Russell “Blake” Peters, who share a lot of commonalities on the basketball court. Both are guards and Illinois natives. Silverstein is from Glencoe and Peters from Evanston. They will see plenty of one another for the next two years in the Ivy League as Silverstein is now an upperclassman at Harvard and Peters just completed his first season at Princeton.
The Maccabi USA Open Men’s Basketball Team is represented from coast to coast. Jordan Fuchs hails from New York, while Braelee Albert started his amateur career in Los Angeles at the famed Brentwood School. Benny Gealer is also a Californian, coming off his final high school season at Rolling Hills Preparatory in Rancho Palos Verdes.
The teammates from Yeshiva University in New York, Ethan Lasko (Hollywood, Fla.) and Ofek Reef (Plano, Texas) were also named to the squad. Lasko, who just completed his first season with the Maccabees, was part of a historic 50-game winning streak that Reef got to see in full.
Yeshiva was founded on the affiliation with Modern Orthodox Judaism. The USA Open Men’s Basketball Team identifies with an entire melting pot of Jewish upbringings.
Iorio wasn’t born Jewish. When Sam was growing up, his mother wanted to make sure that he had the best educational training.
“One of the better situations at the time was the JCC for preschool,” Iorio said. “My mom grew up going to Catholic school and she was already testing the waters for certain situations. She got linked up with some families (in Allentown) and studied more about Judaism and fell in love with it.”
His mom began the process of conversion and so did her 7-year-old son and 1-year-old daughter. Iorio’s dad never converted, but he has offered his full support to the idea of Judaism. He even sits on the board of the local Allentown JCC.
The older Iorio child had his bar mitzvah. He proudly wears his religion on his sleeve with a tattoo on his left wrist that bears the scripture of “Baruch Hashem,” which translates to “Blessed Is The Name.”
“That was my mom’s favorite saying,” Iorio said. “I feel like I do live a blessed life. It’s pretty special because that’s my first (tattoo).”
Rabinovich and Schlakman had more laid-back approaches to their Judaism lifestyle.
“It was very special to have my family and a bunch of my friends there to get bar mitzvahed,” Schlakman said. “We didn’t have a big party. We had lunch and then I went to the Celtics game.”
“I was raised Jewish. My parents are Jewish,” said Rabinovich. “My family is more about practicing Judaism in the way we live and the way we operate on a daily basis.”
Once they land in Israel on July 5th, the entire Maccabi USA delegation will experience a six-day program called “Israel Connect,” which is an immersive tour of the Holy Land. After that, the basketball team will be based in Jerusalem’s YMCA Hall for competition.
There will be two different stages when the basketball events begin. Stage 1 consists of five group games, where the Americans will take on Argentina, France, Australia, Israel, and Canada. The games are being regulated by FIBA (International Basketball Federation) rules.
With the quick turnaround of playing in a Maccabiah, the team will begin a three-day training camp in New Jersey from July 1st-3rd, where it will form bonds for the first time in person. It will give Gottlieb a chance to do in 2022 what he did in 2017.
Noah Friedman is a Los Angeles native and graduated from Arizona State University. Follow him on Twitter (@NoahFriedman_), Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/noahfriedmanpage) and https://maccabiusa.com/maccabimedia/