Basketball jamboree could tip off new youth league

There are teams and uniforms, tournaments and championships, and best of all, lifetime friendships.

Soon the East Bay may be adding its name to the roster of Jewish Youth Athletic Leagues, which exist throughout the country.

"If kids are interested enough in this, we can make it happen," says Barry Kleiman, one of the organizers and a past player in the Philadelphia JYAL.

The tipoff event will be from 1:30 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18 — a basketball jamboree at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek. There will be games and lots of basketball skills contests like free throws, speed dribbling, shooting contests and lay ups. And, of course, there will be prizes.

It will also be an opportunity for the would-be coaches to size things up and see if there are enough interested kids to form several teams. Everyone, boys and girls in fourth through 10th grade from both sides of the Caldicott Tunnel, is invited.

"The goal is to create a Jewish sports outlet which is open to kids of all ages," says Phil Winslow, also an organizer.

Although several East Bay Jewish organizations are sponsoring the event, the real driving force behind the formation of the league is the JYAL alumni. They have wonderful memories of their time as players and want Jewish boys and girls of the East Bay to have the same experience.

"It created friendships I still have today," says Winslow, now a grandfather, remembering his years spent every Sunday after religious school playing for San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom.

"Every team had its own uniform with the name of the temple you represented."

Another organizer, Rob Kadesh, is a former member of San Francisco's Beth Israel-Judea team. "When I moved [to the East Bay] I couldn't believe there wasn't anything similar. Some of my best friends are from that league."

In 1992, Kadesh put together and coached a youth basketball team representing the CCJCC. The team played in the San Francisco league, which then also included teams from the Peninsula and Marin, but which is now defunct.

"It was a Cinderella season," says Winslow, who helped Kadesh coach. "They won the championship."

But the team played for only two years. Crossing the Bay Bridge proved to be too much of an obstacle.

With the completion of the CCJCC gym — which includes two basketball courts — the time is right for the East Bay to try starting its own JYAL, organizers believe.

Kleiman is certain the idea will take off. He has some experience in these things. A few years ago, he proposed starting a basketball team at Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito, where his children go to school. Although the principal was skeptical about whether there would be sufficient interest, Kleiman got the go-ahead. Forty-one kids showed up — more than enough to field a team.

"If we can get kids to come to [the jamboree] it will be easy to get them back," Kleiman says.

These basketball visionaries aren't stopping with just an East Bay JYAL team.

Kleiman would like to see it evolve to include adult teams — just like in Philadelphia.

"Kids would come back home [after college] and they had a league to play in," he says. "I have a 58-year-old cousin who still plays."

The new East Bay league, which will be self-contained with only intra-league competition, also could lead to the formation of a team to compete in the Maccabi games next summer.

Kleiman has even given thought to the issue of high-schoolers who want to play for the JYAL and their school teams. Normally, players are allowed only to play on their school team; however, Kleiman would help them bypass that restriction by setting up "pick-up" games through the JYAL. The informal games would let the players compete with other Jews at the CCJCC, although they still couldn't play league games.

All the organizers agree that a collateral benefit of an East Bay JYAL is that it could help keep kids connected to the Jewish community.

"This is one more way to keep kids together post-bar and bat mitzvah," says Kleiman.

It certainly had that effect on Winslow when he was a kid. At that time, all the players had to be affiliated with a synagogue.

"Why did I stay in religious school?" Winslow asks. "Because I wanted to play basketball? Maybe."

The jamboree, which is sponsored by the CCJCC, Berkeley Richmond JCC, Center for Jewish Living and Learning, and the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, has been publicized at all the East Bay synagogues, midrasha and through other Jewish organizations.

Kleiman expects anywhere from 40 to 200 kids to show up. What happens after that is dependent on the interest level.

Kadesh is optimistic. "I have two little girls, 1 and 3 years old. I want it to be a thriving league when they're ready."