Tehiyah hoops it up before 13,000 Coliseum fans

A little more than two years ago, El Cerrito's Tehiyah Day School had no basketball program at all. But on Jan. 31, the Tehiyah Timberwolves played in front of more than 13,000 fans at the Oakland Coliseum arena.

OK, so the Coliseum crowd wasn't there specifically to see the Tehiyah team. The U.C. Berkeley-University of Arizona men's game was the main attraction that night. Tehiyah's exhibition game was just part of the halftime entertainment.

Still, to those boys and girls from Tehiyah who participated, the experience meant much more than just a simple diversion for the crowd.

"I'll remember it for the rest of my life," said sixth-grader Benji Kleiman.

"It was completely exhilarating," added seventh-grader Maya Kronfeld. "It felt like I was in slow motion out on the court."

The team's coach, Barry Kleiman, also went home with lasting memories. He recalls one special moment that came when he walked into the tunnel leading onto the playing floor and saw 25 players proudly wearing their Tehiyah uniforms.

The 25 had been assembled from Tehiyah's four varsity and junior varsity teams to play against each other at halftime.

"They gave a big cheer," he said. "That was the highlight of my recent life."

Kleiman, 47, is the sole reason a basketball program exists at Tehiyah, an unaffiliated Jewish day school for grades K-8.

When he enrolled son Benji and daughter Carly at the school three years ago, Kleiman noticed that the school offered no organized sports. He wanted his kids to have a chance to play and he had a passion for hoops, having played and coached before.

So he decided to volunteer his services.

No matter that the school didn't have a gym, or that Kleiman was busy running his own head-hunting agency in Berkeley. He took the responsibility anyway.

From the team's first day, when 42 kids showed up for practice, the program has flourished.

The school is now home to four teams, which compete in the East Bay Middle School Athletic League. This year, there's also a new "feeder" program for boys and girls in fifth grade.

Sixty of the school's 230 students — more than one-fourth — are involved in the basketball program.

"It's turned into a pretty big thing," Kleiman said. "It's a monster now."

Kleiman serves as coach for the four varsity and junior varsity teams, arranges schedules and transportation and often works as an impromptu counselor. He and his three assistants work as volunteers.

But the coach has no complaints. "One of the reasons I offered to do this job — which has definitely turned into a full-time, part-time job — is because this is an exceptional group of kids.

"As it turns out, I have something the kids want: playing time," he added. So "I'm able to get their attention and try to use that to my advantage in terms of other lessons about school and family."

To see what the team means to the students, one has only to observe a practice. Right away, it's evident that not only do these kids understand the game, they're also having fun. Almost every time one of them gets the ball, the player breaks out into a smile, as if aware that he or she is momentarily the center of attention.

"Practice is something you look forward to when you wake up in the morning [that day]," said eighth-grader Elan Ben-Oni. "You're waiting for the week to go around so you can come to practice."

For the school itself, the basketball program has brought many benefits. The most obvious is that, for the first time, students can play a sport for the school.

Perhaps no one knows this better than eighth-grader Lara Walklet. Even though she's been playing basketball since she was 8, she used to be able to play at Tehiyah only during recess. And even then, she found herself among just two or three girls who played with the boys.

Now, 18 players make up the varsity and JV girls' teams. "I was really happy that all the girls got involved in the team," Walklet said. "Before, it was all kind of cliquey in school. This has brought a lot of girls together in one activity that we can all discuss."

"The program has definitely added a level of validation and confidence to a school that was pretty dominated by the study side," Kleiman said.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the program has also improved that "study side" of things.

"Games are the highlight of the week," Walklet explained, "and everyone [at Tehiyah] is really psyched for them. Everyone even gets their homework done early, which doesn't [ordinarily] happen at school."

The team's most obvious Jewish component is its blue-and-white uniform. The school's name is spelled out in English, using a Hebrew-style font. Also, Kleiman said, he has to factor bar and bat mitzvah studies into whether various players merit playing time.

The program is still missing a gym. Because the school occupies what used to serve as an annex for Mira Vista Middle School, it has no such facility.

The teams rent space for practice at the Berkeley Adult School and at the Windrush School gym in El Cerrito.

Plans have been drawn up for a gym and auditorium. Revira Singer, head of the school, said funds are currently being raised for the $1.5 million addition, which she hopes to see constructed before the year 2000.

"We're fervently looking for donors all the time," Kleiman said. "If I could, I'd invite [potential donors] to a game, because the truth is, if you watched the kids play and saw their spirit and their commitment, and you had a few bucks, you would chip in."

Singer said Kleiman's "contribution has been extraordinary. It shows what you can do when people set their hearts and minds and time to things that they care about."

Said Kleiman: "I don't know how I could have done anything so noteworthy and still had all this fun."