The history of sports is filled with stories of great teams that never won championships or of great players who never got to show off their talent to the world. As a fan of the San Antonio Spurs, I still think, what if Kawhi Leonard didn’t get injured in the playoffs in 2017. Would the team have won it all? Or how about the previous season when the Spurs won an amazing 67 games lead by 4 hall-of-famers but lost in the second round. There are even more extreme examples of great teams who couldn’t quite make it, including this year’s Gonzaga Bulldogs, undefeated until they lost in the NCAA men’s basketball championship game.
There is even a documentary, appropriately called The Best That Never Was, about football player Marcus Dupree, who never got the career commensurate with his amazing ability. For the last two years, we may have a great (or heartbreaking) example of “the best that never was” in the Yeshiva University college basketball team. They possess a current win streak of 36 games, second-longest in NCAA Division III history, but they have no championships to show for it.
Last year, the Division III tournament was cancelled after two rounds, and while the YU Macs (short for Maccabees) got to play some games this season, their tournament wasn’t even scheduled. Unfortunately, Division III does not pull in the kind of revenue of the Division I tournament, and clearly was not a priority for a lot of universities or the NCAA.
The YU team, for now, will have to live with the what if questions. Were they good enough to win it all? Hopefully next season they will get to defend their streak and play for a championship, but until then, they have been an inspiration to the Jewish community, filled with talented players (one with NBA dreams) and great chemistry. Their mission has not only been to win basketball games but also to transform the very idea of Jewish sports.
Usually, the dilemma facing Jewish athletes is whether they can reconcile their religious tradition with the game. Sandy Kofax and Hank Greenberg were heroes in the Jewish community because they refused to play on Jewish holidays, while some contemporary players have chosen to play on those days. The YU team asks why we even need to choose and defiantly declares, “We can be proud, observant, kippah-wearing Jews and still destroy the competition.”
It would have been amazing to see YU go for that elusive championship, and maybe they still will. Theirs is a story of what we have missed during this pandemic, but also a reminder that what was does not have to be what is. With effort and dedication, a small, religious college can become a basketball powerhouse. The best that never was might turn out to be the best that’s yet to come.