Written By Dylan Manfre
JERUSALEM — When Sam Iorio converted to Judaism from Christianity at the age of 7, he knew little about what was in store. Now, the decision his mother made on his behalf has given him unique experiences that he never could have imagined.
The Niagara College men’s basketball graduate student is returning from a three-week trip to Israel, the holy land of the Jewish people. He won a gold medal as part of the USA’s Open Division men’s basketball team at the 21st Maccabiah in late July.
It was, in Jerusalem where he blended his love of basketball with Judaism at the third largest sporting event in the world. It was a successful trip for Iorio and for the United States who defeated France, 81-70, in the championship game at Malha Arena on July 25.
“If you would’ve told me when I was 7 years old, where converting to Judaism would take me, I would have never believed you,” Iorio said. “It’s just been one of the biggest blessings of my life, and I owe my mom a lot of credit for having the faith and courage to do that.”
More than 10,000 athletes representing 74 worldwide delegations competed in the “Jewish Olympics” which happens every four years across Israel. Since its inception in 1932, the mission of the Maccabiah has been to bring Jewish people together using sports as the bridge to connect athletes from around the world.
When the buzzer sounded and the U.S. secured gold, tears poured down Iorio’s face as “We are the champions,” by Queen, engulfed the arena. Photographers swarmed the court at the final buzzer taking pictures and videos to document the joy and pride Iorio and his teammates felt in the gold medal moment.
Iorio went to the locker room to retrieve his iPhone after he received his medal. His first call was a FaceTime to someone close to him. But his face wasn’t the first thing on the screen. Instead, it was the shiny medal with the M21 logo in the center.
The call was to his father, Mike Iorio.
Mike Iorio is recovering from successful brain surgery to remove a non-cancerious tumor. His son dedicated the victory to his father and said the medal was going “right to him.”
“This is everything I do it for,” an emotional Sam Iorio said sitting on the podium. “I’m just happy to go through it … I do it for my parents. To see my dad go through that and me being over here and him (being) a trooper, I knew I had to be a trooper and come out here and do what we’re supposed to do.”
Sam’s father encouraged him to go to Israel to compete in the games, and Sam knew he had to deliver for his father.
“I love you,” Sam Iorio told his father on the call. “I love you, bro.”
The support of Sam Iorio’s father and mother meant the world to him. He also regularly received encouragement from his head coach at Niagara Greg Paulus, from 5800 miles away in Lewiston, New York.
“We were communicating with him and following him throughout the whole tournament,” Paulus said in a phone interview.
Paulus mentioned to Iorio the importance of being himself and how he wanted him to be a sponge and take it all in. He was aware of how big of an opportunity this was for Iorio and how he spoke often about how he wanted to compete in the Maccabiah.
A connection to the homeland
Sam Iorio’s international resume includes playing in the 2019 Maccabi Games in Budapest, but the 21st Maccabiah in Israel was the first time he got a deeper connection to the Jewish homeland.
Maccabi USA’s athletes participated in a one-week program called Israel Connect, aimed at showcasing Israel’s historic and religious landmarks with nationwide tours to many of the most precious sites.
“It’s a beautiful place, beautiful people,” Sam Iorio said. “It’s really exciting to see everything and be a part of it.”
The U.S. delegation spent time early in the trip visiting places such as Masada, the Dead Sea and the Western Wall — considered by many to be the holiest place in the Jewish faith.
Paulus was elated to see the pictures that Sam Iorio sent of places he went to, as he knows having international experiences helps players grow as people.
“We want to continue to grow them as people and as leaders in the community, and when you can have experiences and see different parts of the world and learn different cultures … I think those opportunities are ones to take advantage of,” Paulus said.
Sam Iorio’s vision is now set on a title in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC). Shortly after he landed back in the United States, Iorio was back in the gym on Niagara’s campus for summer workouts.
“I finished the job. It’s time to get to work now and go win the MAAC tournament and get to March Madness,” Sam Iorio said. “This goal is done but we got another goal on the way.”