Beyond the Boxscore
When Yoni Schiff hits The Shot — a rushed prayer "halfway between center court and the 3-point line" as senior guard Albert Katz describes it — to force a fourth overtime, the Robert M. Beren Academy players more than believe.
"People were going crazy — everyone high fiving everyone," Walter Katz, Albert's dad, tells CultureMap. "Especially in the stands. The players got focused. They were telling themselves they had another overtime to play."
Four more minutes to try and keep the run alive. And who wouldn't believe in these Beren Academy kids at this point? Belief is really what the remarkable two-year basketball run of this tiny Orthodox Jewish day school in Houston is all about.
That's what these Beren kids are all about though. They're forever fighting, forever pushing to keep their season alive.
The Beren kids became an international story for sticking up for their beliefs last year of course, emerging as unexpected champions of tolerance in a world that needs much more it. They were prepared to forfeit their hoop dreams for their religious beliefs when the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) arrogantly refused to change the schedule so Beren's kids could observe the Sabbath. It took parents drafting a federal lawsuit to force the high school governing body to find a conscience and display some understanding for others.
That Beren team made it all the way to the 2A championship game, falling four points short of the state title as major network cameras rolled and outlets like the New York Times and ESPN overwhelmed a tiny press row.
It turns out their story wasn't over though. Not by a long shot.
For on the first day of March in a new year, Beren is back in the state semifinals, back in Fort Worth, the site of last year's courageous run, back on stage no one outside of their own locker room expected them to get to once let alone twice. Is it any wonder the game becomes an epic, one of those unbelievable high school games that is destined to live on for years and years and years — in retelling after retelling?
Four overtimes. That's what it takes for Geneva School of Boerne to finally beat Beren. Four overtimes. And the 68-67 game is not sealed until a shot from Stars forward Drayton Ratcliff goes up a half second after the fifth final buzzer of the afternoon and spins a shot off the rim and out.
With how little time Beren has to get up one last game-winning attempt, Ratcliff does an incredible job of even coming close to beating the buzzer. That's what these Beren kids are all about though. They're forever fighting, forever pushing to keep their season alive.
"It stings," Albert Katz, a key contributor on last year's team who took over as the starting point guard this season, tells me more an hour after the game in a cellphone call. "I still can't quite believe it's over . . .
"But I'm proud of what we accomplished."
What Beren accomplished goes far beyond basketball of course. When I got drawn back into the Beren story this year, I didn't just think back to covering all the twists and turns of last year's fight to play. I found myself thinking of all the school shootings that have happened around the country just since that March 2012 run. There is so much hate. It's remarkable to see teenagers championing tolerance affecting real change.
And these Beren Stars did it by simply being themselves, by standing strong and talking more clear headed than many of the adults bickering around them.
I found myself thinking of all the school shootings that have happened just since that 2012 run. There is so much hate. It's remarkable to see teens championing tolerance affect real change.
Coach Chris Cole's team never set out to become an international symbol. They harbored no visions of being painted as modern day Sandy Koufaxes.
"The emails coming in from cross the world we're great," Albert Katz says. "And we really, truly appreciated them, and all the support . . . But we just want to play basketball."
In a testament to how classily they fought to be able to play while staying true to their faith last year, the Stars largely were able to just play this year. Game times were adjusted to accommodate the Sabbath with no fight or fanfare this time — just like TAPPS accommodated its overwhelming Christian majority schools for years by not playing on Sundays.
No drama meant no media either. The TV news darlings of 2012 are just another small school living the state dream in 2013, playing to their dedicated, aisle-running student and parent fan base and few else.
"This year it's more just about basketball," Walter Katz, the proud dad, says. "It's about what they were able to accomplish as a basketball team.
"Maybe that's what it should have been allowed to be from the beginning."
Pioneers don't always get to choose though. They are often made by circumstance, by an ignorant force or roadblock getting in their way. You only get to decide if you're going to stand strong or not.
"The emails coming in from cross the world we're great. And we really, truly appreciated them, and all the support . . . But we just want to play basketball."
These Beren Academy kids stood strong. They deserve every additional moment.
And the Sabbath ends up giving them another one. Observing the Sabbath also means no driving from sundown Friday till after sundown Saturday for Orthodox Jews, so after the heartbreaking quadruple overtime classic finally concludes Friday afternoon, the Beren players and their families head to a Fort Worth-area hotel to beat the sun.
They spend their Sabbath together — their time as a team extending because of their religious beliefs. Before long — too soon for many of them — they'll be ex-teammates moving on to life past high school. The team's star, 6-foot-6 forward Zach Yoshor, might end up playing college basketball for an Ivy League school. For almost all of the other seniors, this will be it. Many will spend a year in Israel like Albert Katz before heading off to college.
But they'll have a little more Sabbath time together. They'll undoubtedly talk about the unbelievable game that ended their run, about this amazing two-year journey.
"They've dealt with some of the highs," Walter Katz says with sundown approaching (he'll need to get off the phone soon). "Now they have to deal and cope with the low of losing a game like that.
"It will be interesting to see how they do."
Walter Katz does not sound worried. He shouldn't be. These Beren Stars have been through so much more. The run's over, but their legacy will live on.
You don't need a trophy to be true champions.