MAcher squad takes AZA title with big victory in Walnut Creek

It was sweater weather outside Sunday, but inside the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center's gym the heat was really on.

In what amounted to a grudge match between the Peninsula's MAcher chapter AZA, the two-time defending champion, and San Francisco's Sam Beber AZA, the 1996 winner, this year's tournament in Walnut Creek saw both teams going into the final with a trip to nationals hanging in the balance.

They were the last teams remaining in the double-elimination tournament for nine chapters from the AZA Central Region West, covering Northern and Central California.

It was a long and intense day, but an enjoyable one, too.

"These games are a lot of fun," said 17-year-old MAcher player Avi Moussa, on his fourth year with his team. "There is good sportsmanship and it's good to be with your fellow brothers. We're all friends and it's all for fun. It gets competitive sometimes, but we always make up in the end."

Robert Sverbilov, a member of the Sam Beber team for three years, exuded confidence. "We should win," he said. "They're good competitors, a strong team. But this is a grudge match. We should have won last year — we came very close. And we're here to take it all the way to Washington, D.C.," where the nationals will be held in May.

The relatively diminutive size of the crowd, which had diminished from the hundred or so that filled the Tice Valley Community Gym earlier in the day, in no way affected the enthusiasm of those still present.

Each team of 13- to 17-year-olds had its cheering section, and from the opening tipoff, the game was fast, physical and exciting.

The MAchers took an early lead, going on a 16-3 run in the first five minutes of the 30-minute game.

Though the Sam Bebers were clearly having an off game, their bench kept spirits up by chanting, "Teamwork! Teamwork!" By halftime, however, they trailed 32-15.

They fared no better in the second half as the MAchers seemed to score nearly every time they got their hands on the ball.

In the end, it was the MAchers coming away with a 59-25 victory.

Afterwards, there appeared to be no hard feelings, as handshakes and back-pats were exchanged all around.

And that's exactly as it should be, according to Michelle Reingold, adviser and program coordinator, since the emphasis in this league is fraternity.

"The AZA is good for Jews who might not necessarily get involved with other Jewish activities, especially teenage boys who excel in sports. It's a chance for them to identify with something Jewish," she said.

AZA falls under the umbrella organization of B'nai B'rith Youth Organization. A youth must have at least one Jewish parent to join BBYO or AZA.

"The AZA's thrust is group work," said regional director Dana Hoffman, "and putting that in the context of basketball is a unique spin. Sometimes they bring in 'ringers' just for basketball — kids who would probably not join a Jewish organization otherwise. But it gets them involved in something Jewish, anyway."

MAcher player Joel Abelson, who turns 17 in January, expressed both elation and conciliation. "It feels great to win. It's our third time in a row. We're happy we won, and we hope to do well in Washington, D.C.

"It's really good belonging to the AZA," he said. "The BBYO is a good organization and I feel proud to be part of it. You get a bond with good friends, and a sense of fraternity, and fun basketball games."

Sam Beber player Jonah Teeter-Balin said, "They've got a lot of great basketball talent. But we played our best, and we had fun.

"These games are always fun. I'm a senior now, so I guess this is my last year. It's been a good experience for me. I learned a lot in BBYO and it's been fun all the way. I made so many friends.

Since it began in 1995, the AZA national tournament has drawn competitors from North America and beyond, according to athletic chairman and tournament organizer Tomer Kagan. "There are teams from Australia, South Africa, Ireland, Israel, France, Bulgaria, England," he said.

Each year the nationals are held in a different locale. The teams winning in the regionals are sponsored in the nationals by their regional organization, which provides partial subsidies. Other funds are raised by the chapter itself, with the help of sponsors.

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen
Rachel Raskin-Zrihen

Rachel Raskin-Zrihen is a longtime Bay Area journalist and co-author of the book "Jewish Community of Solano County." She is a wife and mother of two grown sons and grandmother of three.