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NBA Draft — a Yeshiva player?

The National Basketball Association will hold its annual draft of college players next week.

David Kufeld, left; Ryan Turell

The talk in Jewish circles this year centers around one athlete and one question — will he, or won’t he? Will Ryan Turell, a star player on the Yeshiva University basketball team, be drafted by an NBA team on Thursday, June 23?

Jews in the NBA aren’t a novelty. In the early years of the league, some seven decades ago, basketball, known traditionally as the “City Game,” the province of scrappy men from immigrant and minority families, had many Jewish players — some of them stars. As African American athletes, and more recently players from overseas, have come to dominate the league, the occasional Jewish player has continued to make a team’s roster: former Denver Nugget Danny Schayes, son of early NBA Hall-of-Famer Dolph, in the late 20th century; Israel’s Omri Casspi and the Phoenix Suns’ and New York Nicks Amar’e Staudmeier.

But an Orthodox Jew drafted into the NBA? It happened once, some 40 years ago, as David Kufeld was drafted by the Portland Trail Blazers. But will he lasted only four days. So now, YU’s Ryan Turell be the second YU player to be picked by an NBA team?

Turell, 22, a 6-7, 190 lb. guard from California’s San Fernando Valley is a tefilin-wrapping, Shabbat-and-kashrut-observing day school graduate who turned down Division I athletic scholarship offers so he could “stay religious.” He wears a kippah while he plays and has stated that he will continue doing so as a pro.

Following the Maccabees’ successful 2021-22 season (25-4 record, qualifying for the NCAA’s Division III playoffs) in which he scored 28 points in a first-round loss, Turell decided to forego his remaining year of athletic eligibility, and become eligible for the NBA draft, which will take place at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on June 23.

Few D-III players get drafted by an NBA team, let alone play, or star, in the league; the level of competition in D-III simply isn’t strong enough to prepare its players for life in the NBA.

Most NBA experts, in the months before the draft, called Turell unlikely to hear his name called at the two-round draft; first-round picks are nearly certain to make the final cut and get a guaranteed contract; second-round selections, less so.

More likely, Turell will attend a team’s training camp as a free agent, and hope to earn a roster spot. Or play overseas. He “probably will end up in Israel,” playing professional basketball there, opines Jeffrey Gurock, YU professor of history, and a former assistant coach of YU’s basketball team.

To David Kufeld, the YU star two generations ago, the story is very familiar. It was his own story.

A standout, All-American player on the YU Maccabees in the late 1970s, two-time NCAA D-III rebounding champion, he was the only YU player ever drafted by an NBA team. The Portland Trail Blazers selected him in 1980, on the 10th and final round, before the NBA cut the number of rounds to two.

He was looking forward to a career in public relations. He didn’t find out he’d been drafted until his father, reading the newspaper reports of the draft the next morning, saw his son’s name and called David with the news.

Kufeld, a 6-8, 220 lb. center-power forward from Great Neck, Long Island, earned his athletic distinction after leading the teams of Division III — the least competitive of the NCAA’s three levels — in rebounding his junior and senior years.

An anomaly in the world of YU, which stresses academic and religious studies, he for more than four decades held the Maccabees’ career rebounding record. It was broken last season by Gabriel Leifer, one of Turell’s teammates.

Kufeld, a member of his alma mater’s Athletic Hall of Fame, still holds the team’s rebounds-per-game (15.4) record.

But his distinction as the only drafted YU player remains unbroken — so far.

In the Trail Blazers’ pre-season training camp, it became apparent that his skills did not match those of players from bigger, more-hoops-oriented, Division I schools, and that he would not be able to play a full NBA schedule and maintain Shabbat observance.

He spent four days in training camp before the team’s general manager informed him that he was being released — which spared him from informing the GM that, as a shomer Shabbat Jew, he would not be able to take part in that Friday night’s rookies-versus-veterans game, had he still been on the pre-season roster.

Kufeld flew back to New York, where he played in pickup games around the city to stay in shape; got married and started work in the marketing field, the last 23 years as director of advertising and client relations for the Weitz & Luxenberg law firm.

Over the years he played three times in the Maccabiah Games, and prior to his career in marketing, he played professional basketball in Israel’s highest level division, for Maccabi Ramat Gan.

Kufeld, now 63, still in shape, made aliyah with his wife Suri in 2019, joining the couple’s two children and five grandchildren. Telecommuting, he spends 30% of his time in the US.

Another religiously observant athlete to garner attention in recent years was Baltimore’s Tamir Goodman (aka the “Jewish Jordan”), who earned an athletic scholarship to Division I Towson University. He experienced moderate success there, coped with a series of injuries, then played pro ball in Israel for part of six seasons in the early 2000s.

For Kufeld, religious observance came before athletic success; he would not consider playing, or traveling, on Shabbat — even if he had found a place in the NBA — he says one recent morning in his Manhattan office. “That was a red line” he would not cross.

With a small but growing number of Orthodox athletes reaching or approaching the highest echelons of athletic success (in baseball, hockey, the Olympics), and with more tolerance expressed for athletes’ religious needs — what sort of participation is permissible according to Jewish law?

Turell has indicated that he will play on Shabbat if he makes an NBA roster but will arrange to stay in a hotel within walking distance of each city’s arena, may have to answer questions and face challenges to his faith if the NBA beckons.

Kufeld says that Turell, if drafted and earns a spot on an NBA roster, “faces a tough choice” — his assertions of Shabbat observance notwithstanding, Kufeld says.

“I’m glad I didn’t have to make that choice,” Kufeld says. “His intention of wearing his kippah is noble, but when he does so on a Shabbat game, it may be a chillul Hashem,” Kufeld says, using the Hebrew term that means desecrating G-d’s name. It may send mixed signals about what is permissible on Judaism’s holy day, according to Kufeld.

“I don’t know if it’s ‘good for the Jews.’”

While such star baseball players as Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, neither of them Orthodox, made headlines — and became objects of Jewish pride — for sitting out important games on Yom Kippur several decades ago, the conflict of games on Friday night or Saturday would be a weekly challenge for Orthodox Jewish athletes like Kufeld or Turell.

“The immense, looming question for a YU athlete,” Kufeld wrote in his blog, “is whether it’s possible to be religiously observant as a pro athlete. It is extremely difficult to thread this religious needle in pro or high-level amateur sports . . . since sports is huge weekend activity. When you are paid to play it changes everything, and there is little appetite for team management to adjust to particulars from individual athletes.”

“We should not overestimate the tolerance of professional teams for a player’s personal beliefs,” Kufeld says, referencing players’ contracts and the expectations of management from individual athletes.

That tension is more prominent today.

Witness the growing number of Muslim athletes who continue to play — and fast — when their games coincide with Ramadan.

Witness the recent resignation of Amar’e Stoudemire from his job as assistant coach of the NBA Brooklyn Nets because his consistent absence on Shabbat was not, he said, fair to the team.

“Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but this may be Turell’s ‘Koufax moment,’” Kufeld says. Will Turell opt to play on Shabbat or, as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ star pitcher did when the opening game of the 1965 World Series fell on Yom Kippur, sit out? Will Turell declare that his religious obligations outweigh an NBA career? Will he decide to play in Israel?

A pro career in Israel, in Europe’s competitive pro league, Kufeld says, isn’t “a let-down.”

There’s more pressure on Turell, Kufeld says. Bigger crowds, more media coverage, more pro scouts at his games. “He has it much harder than I did. He’s in a fishbowl.”

Does Kufeld plan to watch the NBA draft next week? “I guess so,” he says. He wants to see if Turell becomes the second YU player selected. “I don’t need to hold that record.”

Copyright © 2022 by the Intermountain Jewish News

IJN Contributing Writer

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