Yeshiva University men's basketball team star Ryan Turell. (Yeshiva University) (Yeshiva University)
Ryan Turell

“Ready to make history”: Ryan Turell is leading Yeshiva University’s undefeated streak with hopes of breaking into the big league.

By Yakir Benzion, United With Israel

Fans of Yeshiva University basketball sensation Ryan Turell are hoping that the world has indeed evolved and matured to the point where an Orthodox Jewish athlete could be signed by a professional basketball team and play in the world’s premiere league, the NBA.

The 6-foot-7, 220-pound all-star has been at the forefront of his team’s unprecedented 37-game win streak, the longest current winning streak by any college in the NCAA. Turell was averaging 26.0 points per game before the coronavirus, and the Los Angeles Times reported last week that at least two NBA teams have requested game tape of Turell. As one league executive says, “Ryan is certainly on the radar.”

While there have been dozens of Jewish players in the NBA, including a few Israelis, none of them was Sabbath-observant because games are played and teams work and travel on Friday evening and Saturday, during Shabbat.

However, the sports world, including basketball, has changed dramatically in the past couple of years. Harold Katz, an unofficial scout for Yeshiva University, says the time might be ripe for the league to be accepting of a highly talented yet religiously observant player.

“I’ve always said that the Jews as a people are not as gifted athletically as others,” Katz told the Times, noting that he is also the former coach of Tamir Goodman, an American orthodox Jewish basketball star in the late 1990s who played professionally in Israel.

“The world is much more sensitive to differences in people than they were 20 years ago,” Katz said. “No one took Tamir seriously, but the timing is right for a player like Ryan, who is a Swiss army knife,” full of multiple talents on the court.

“Turell can score from deep (42% from three) as well as get to the rim (a highly efficient 1.4 points per play, per Synergy Sports Technology), and he is a multi-positional defender, able to lock down guards and bigs alike,” according to the Times.

“I can do whatever I want at the Division III level,” said Turell, who spent much of his off-time during the pandemic last year practicing with other U.S. college basketball standouts.

“I was a sponge,” Turell said. “At the next level, you have to fill a role. Not everyone understands that, and that’s why they don’t make the next level. It was a good learning curve for me to be the shooter and absorb from Alfonzo how to always be in the right spots.”

A rival coach noted that religious Jewish players often choose to attend Yeshiva University because the team doesn’t play or practice on the sabbath or holy days. However, the coach noted that Turell’s talents outshine those of his teammates: “He shouldn’t be at Yeshiva. How do you miss on him?”

Growing up orthodox in Los Angeles, Turell said he didn’t like to wear his kippah during pickup games.

“I didn’t realize the importance of it, and I didn’t take much pride in wearing it,” he said. “It was the double whammy — being white and wearing the kippah.”

‘Culture of Jewish Athletic Excellence’

Chased by college recruiters who wanted his talent, he initially accepted a scholarship to play ball for the Army, but that fell through when he discovered they practice on Saturday, and in the end he settled on Yeshiva University. While there was no scholarship there, neither were there roadblocks to practicing his faith.

What he discovered there, however, was that coach Elliot Steinmetz had created a “culture of Jewish athletic excellence.”

Fellow player Simcha Halpert said that talented religious Jewish basketball players “set a trend of coming to Yeshiva for basketball and only for basketball.”

In the past, Yeshiva University teams would get clobbered. Now, “I love wearing my kippah and have everyone call me ‘Jewboy’ when we walk into gyms, and they don’t realize they can’t beat us,” Halpert said.

Steinmetz said that for religious Jewish basketball players, “Tamir [Goodman] blazed the trail, and now more and more kids are trying to follow that dream.”

“A lot of kids can now be proud Jewish basketball players,” Goodman told the Times, “but back then, I was just a curiosity.”

“We’re serious. Jews can play basketball,” Turell said. “I made a decision to really be a part of something special, to be a Jewish hero and to create the dream — a basketball culture for Jews — and make this program, which had been seen as a joke, a high-major one. Coach’s goal when he recruited me was to win a national title.”

With their amazing winning streak, the Yeshiva University team was on track for a chance to reach that goal, only to have the coronavirus pandemic result in the NCAA canceling the division II championships.

“Maybe 50 years from now, Jewish kids will begin to understand the magnitude of what this team has been able to accomplish, watching Yeshiva [University] play the way they play,” said Goodman.

Knowing that the NBA scouts are watching him, Turell says, “I’m ready to make history.”

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