FORT WORTH — Isaac Mirwis emerges from the locker room, expecting to be alone with his own sad thoughts. Instead as he makes his way back across the floor where his oversized heart broke, he's hit with a wall of cheers.
It's the Robert M. Beren Academy fans — parents, kids and grandparents, alumni and even a few strangers — saluting the team that accomplished so much even as it lost the state championship game. This scene more than 40 minutes after the final buzzer on Beren's 46-42 loss to Abilene Christian in the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) 2A final isn't picked up by any of the TV cameras that latched onto this remarkable story that grew out of a tiny Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston.
The cameras have packed up and moved on, chasing the next big thing. Beren doesn't get the storybook ending. It comes up four points short despite one of the most frenetic fourth quarter rallies you'll ever see. TV doesn't know what quite to make of this sort of thing. CNN will not need this Saturday night footage after all.
In some ways, it's an even more perfect ending. For this was never about winning it all. It was about getting the chance to compete.
When someone peddles the script of Mirwis, Zach Yoshor and Isaac Buchine's run, they'll be asked to change the ending to something happier. The team that stood up for the Sabbath — and religious tolerance — the one that wouldn't stop believing even after it was told it would have to forfeit twice cannot get all the way to championship game and then lose, can it?
No one in TV or the movies is ever going to accept this.
But in some ways, it's an even more perfect ending. For this was never about winning it all. It was about getting the chance to compete.
Those courageous Beren parents, who put together that federal lawsuit over the objections of the school, didn't do it because they wanted their kids to go on a trophy grab. They did it to show their kids that their religion counts just as much as anyone else's. That they deserve the same chances as anyone else.
In forcing TAPPS to blink, they drove home the point that forcing an Orthodox Jewish team to forfeit or play on the Sabbath is the same as making a devout Christian school play on Sunday (something TAPPS bylaws expressly forbid). This is about opportunity — not trophies.
Even the most crushing loss is better than an incomplete, a lifetime of wondering what would have happened if you didn't have to forfeit.
And oh, what an opportunity Beren had.
Mirwis leaves the floor with his hands over the yarmulke he wears while running the point for the Stars. He's a high school senior who is hurting. When I ask him a question later, the first thing he does is blame himself for the loss, for "missing shots I normally have the confidence to make."
"We said before the game no regrets, but . . ."
Truth is the Stars never come close to Abilene without Mirwis' inspired fourth quarter. He drives to the basket again and again, refusing to let the dream go. Late in the game, with the pressure at its highest, he pulls off a ball fake (now-you-see-it-now-you-don't) drive that Ricky Rubio would appreciate, drawing gasps from even the Abilene fans.
But Mirwis cannot see that at this moment. Four points short is what looms large now. But that's part of getting to experience the state finals too. Even the most crushing loss is better than an incomplete, a lifetime of wondering what would have happened if you didn't have to forfeit.
Mirwis might always remember this loss. But before long, he'll come to appreciate it as one of the moments in one of the best years of his life.
"These guys will be my friends my whole life," Mirwis says of his teammates. "There aren't words to describe how much I love this team. They tell me I'm a great leader, but it's the followers who are great. On the court and off. Anyone could be a good leader with these guys.
There are still tears in Mirwis' red eyes. But there's unmistakable pride too.
A Hoops Dream First
As you listen to the Beren players talk, another point comes crashing home. Even as this school's Sabbath fight grew into a national, and then an international story, the kids at the heart of it are like any other kids anywhere who love basketball.
This isn't a Jewish story. It's a Hoosiers story. It's about a team from a tiny high school (67 high school students total, 35 of those boys) who defied the odds to go farther than anyone ever expected them to go. You don't have to observe the Sabbath to fall in love with this team.
The more than 1700 people who tuned in for a Livestream of Beren's semifinal win (Beren parents paid for both games to be Livestreamed at around $2,000 a game) overwhelming a company used to attracting an audience of about 300 for its more popular high school game streams might have been drawn by the bigger picture. After all, the Livestream company reports that there were viewers in Israel, Germany and Italy watching the Stars.
"These guys will be my friends my whole life," Isaac Mirwis says. "There aren't words to describe how much I love this team."
But the Stars themselves . . . they were playing for each other.
And they turned to each other as Abilene built that 10-point lead and appeared poised to run away with the final. Beren coach Chris Cole kept telling his players in the huddle that they were going to go on a run that won a state championship.
They almost did too. With Nolan Catholic High School's gym growing louder and louder, with Beren fans running up and down the aisles as Mirwis and the boys came storming back.
"We just have heart," senior guard Isaac Buchine says later, with the gym quiet and the trophy across the hall. "We wanted it so bad. I'm honored to have played with these guys.
"Every one of them."
They might be a symbol now. But at their heart, these Beren Stars are a heck of a team.
"We're not pioneers," Rabbi Harry Sinoff, Beren's head of school, insists. "We just thought it was right for us to play. It's good for basketball."
And for sports in general.
A Shining Star
In a sports world of screeching headlines — with NFL teams setting bounties to knock out opposing stars, with a potential steroids cheat possibly rendering Major League Baseball's drug testing program moot because of a technicality, with the next college scandal right around the corner (hello Ben Howland and UCLA!) — it's nice to have a story that only people who are stuck in the 1950s cannot root for (hello TAPPS!) My 6- and 4-year-old sons will likely never be regulars at a synagogue.
But I would have loved for them to see this Beren Stars team.
In victory. And even more in defeat.
Even as they wrestle with the emotions of falling just short in the big game, Mirwis and Co. could not be more complimentary to Abilene and its "stifling defense" and "great players."
Beren officials make the unfortunate, overprotective call of not making any players available in the main media press conference after the loss despite the fact that losing players in state championship games talk all the time. But several players talk to CultureMap individually later before leaving the gym.
And even the ones who decline show remarkable poise.
"I can't," Yoshor, the star forward, says as his mom lightly rubs his back and asks him if he's sure he doesn't want to answer a few questions. "I don't know where to begin. I'm not even functioning right now."
What says more about what it's like to lose the last game of the season than that? These Stars might be symbols, this generation's version of Sandy Koufax. But they are heartbroken teenagers at the moment.
They lost the big game. But what memories they'll have for having fought not just other teams, but rigid, backward thinking to play in it.
Those final standing ovations from the Beren community — with every player who walks out and makes the long stroll across the gym getting one — cannot help but put a lump in your throat either. The cameras don't see it. But it's one powerful, classy scene.
"We shocked the world," Mirwis says.
And with that No. 13 finally cracks a sliver of a smile. He's ready to get on a van back to the hotel, to ride into the rest of his life. You get the idea this kid's not done being a leader.
Just like people aren't close to being done talking about this team.
There's your happy ending.