The advent of the local basketball season raises the perennial hopes of Bruce Wolpert’s University of Rhode Island’s Rams, Judge Howard Lipsey’s Providence College Friars, Judge Michael Silverstein’s Brown Bears and the author’s Bryant Bulldogs. It is also a good time to feature and celebrate a part of Rhode Island Jewish basketball history – JCC hoops.
When the Boston Celtics were winning 11 championships in 13 seasons during the Bill Russell/Red Auerbach era, a local group in Providence was playing great basketball at the Jewish Community Center. Located in a former Providence police station on Sessions Street, behind the Alliance’s current Dwares JCC, this collection of players probably had more fun than their professional idols.
Although they never joined the ranks of the 27 Jewish members of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Marvin Homonoff, Bill Levin, Steve Lehrer, Don Katz, Richard Katz and Richard Yoken represented the Sessions Street JCC as the AZA Spartans. (The Grand Order of Aleph Zadik Aleph, or AZA, is an international youth-led fraternal organization for teenagers).
Since the JCC only had an outdoor blacktop court, the club team practiced during the winter in the gym at Nathan Bishop Junior High School.
“I remember because we won,” remarked Homonoff, whose overtime sharpshooting from the left side of the key put the Spartans into the championship. Now 69, Homonoff vividly places that game in the mid-1960s, when the boys were 15- to 17-year-old high schoolers.
The roots of the East Side JCC go back to the Hebrew Jewish Institute, at 65-67 Benefit St., where the AZA youth club hosted informal walk-on games and practiced for league competition.
“I played pick-up there a couple of times,” stated Jules Cohen, 85, the legendary Yale tennis star who also captained his Providence Country Day School basketball team. “I think it was built in the late 1940s. It had low ceilings.” Cohen recalled being 14 or 15 when he negotiated that compact court.
The Jewish Community Center of Rhode Island acquired the Sessions Street Police Station in the 1950s, after it was decommissioned by the Providence police, and partially repurposed it for community activities, including Sunday clubs for the youngest children and AZA basketball for the teens. Some of the older high schoolers found part-time employment there as basketball referees, basket room attendants and weekend counselors for the youngsters, who played pingpong, bumper pool, board games and kickball.
Big, lovable Dave Hochman and Steve Leavitt were key staffers. Elliot Goldstein was the head of physical education and he organized the first adult men’s basketball league, which flourished once the newly constructed JCC on Elmgrove Avenue opened in 1971.
Straddling those two epochs is Steve Lehrer, who still competes despite multiple knee surgeries. He enjoyed playing with his friends during the first few years of the league. “I remember painting the three-point line on the court with Elliot Goldstein. … Things have changed and have not changed. It is still a great group of guys,” says Lehrer.
Among the more accomplished players were Kenny Steingold, who was a standout at Clark University, hard-nosed Eddie McGovern, who played at the University of Rhode Island, Tom Pearlman of Amherst College, Brown University’s Ric Landau, and later, David Greenberg, who honed his smooth style at Springfield College. That list also includes Jeff Kent, who grew up on the JCC basketball court, continued at URI and went on to play professionally in Israel.
Although the league was predominantly Jewish, others have always been welcome. Today, outside teams can submit rosters for inclusion in league play. Members and sponsored guests are eligible for the informal pick-up games on Monday and Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. Open play is not limited to men, as several women are regulars, including Lisa Waldman, whose brother Steve was a b-ball devotee.
Interest is so intense for those slots, especially on Sundays at 7:30 a.m., that eager athletes line up before the JCC even turns on its lights.
“Ten to fifteen guys are waiting when the building opens. Four to six more show up later and have to wait to play,” Lehrer said. “Early Sunday is a good time if you have Patriots tickets or family plans for the day.”
Over the years, as children learned to dribble, many joined their fathers for open gym. Howard Schacter coached his sons, as well as many others, and played with his oldest, David, a.k.a. “Butter.” Jim O’Neil, a former Brown hoopster, hit the court with his son Patrick, a future Colby College gridder. Moses Brown’s Neal Steingold joined Kenny, Joe Cohen shared his love of the game and his deadly outside shot with his boys, Jaimie and Jesse, and Roger Pearlman extended father/son hoops at the JCC to his son Akiva, completing a three-generation legacy.
Pearlman’s legacy includes “crazy shots from behind his ear that somehow went in,” according to long-time hard-court enthusiast and tenacious defender Harley Frank, who played “religiously” three times a week for 27 years.
Frank discloses that when he started, “Lou Pulner ran the court, broke in rookies, and loved to play with Alan Litwin.” C.P.A. Litwin was one of the few players who passed more than he shot, although he made the first three-pointer in league history. Many statistics were kept, but assists were not.
Paul Formal, the unofficial “Dean of JCC basketball,” describes Pulner as his favorite player to draft for his team: “he could shoot, rebound and never gave up.” In his 40 years of JCC ball, Formal identifies Steve Litwin, a swift southpaw, as the best point guard, with David Dorson an outstanding younger version.
Tom Foley, Steve Abrams and 6-foot-8 Willie Walters, from Boston College, were dominant big men. Worcester Polytechnic Institute running back Paul Barrette was explosive. The Wallick brothers, Peter and Dale, were aggressive and competitive. Greg and Keith Marsello were terrific athletes.
Other stalwarts were Country Day’s Andy Lewis, Classical’s Dov Pick, Mike Bigney of Pawtucket West, Butler’s Harold Foster, bank-shot specialist Ken Kirsch, banker Lou Amoriggi, “Running” Rob Stupell, “Total Package” Paul Kaplan and “Gentleman” Jim Gadol. Classical captain Richard Bornstein was a versatile player who was a dominant presence for many years. He was talented enough to be a walk-on at URI.
Joining Formal as perennial league captains were John Weitzner, Jeff “The Commissioner” Goldberg, Joey Cohen and Roger Pearlman. Certified high school referees were hired, including former player John Scoliard, whom Harley Frank describes as one of the best. No other players would corroborate Scoliard’s basketball officiating skills on the record. His lacrosse refereeing, however, was widely praised.
Among Paul Formal’s favorite gym memories are a few guest appearances by the great Providence College All American and NBA Rookie of the Year Ernie DiGregorio.
“Swish, swish, swish … from way out. He played no defense but had the quickest release. The greatest shooter I ever saw,” Formal said.
Another North Providence native, Joe DiOrio, fondly remembers how he and his brother, Dave, were welcomed at the JCC.
“It was well organized, we always had a game, and we met great people. A lot of us were lawyers, a lot of personalities.” For example, Mark Mandell, Esq. (Division I baseball), Doug Emmanuel, Esq. (tennis talent), Doug Neu, Esq. (strong hoopster), Tom Mirza, Esq. (football speedster), Harris Weiner, Esq. (football QB and tennis), Andy Sigal, Esq. (PCD captain), Marc Decof, Esq. (MB football), Jon Maslin, Esq. (Long Island, New York-style playmaker), as well as the previously referenced Steve Litwin, Pulner, DiOrio and Homonoff.
Since many of the nice guys, like Lehrer, did not like picking open-gym teams, the lawyers were happy to choose the squads. “Despite the lawyers, there were no real quarrels,” DiOrio recalled. “It was a fair game and great fun.”
Today, physicians outnumber the attorneys. The doctors, though less coordinated, are more useful to the injury-prone Weekend Maccabees.
Steve Litwin summed up the magic of JCC hoops: “Guys have been playing together for 50 or 60 years. It is not just the basketball, it is the camaraderie. I love it.”
HARRIS K. WEINER is a Providence attorney, adjunct law professor at the University of Rhode Island and Bryant University, and a former sports editor of the Bowdoin College Orient.