It's tournament time once again. For those of you looking for a rooting interest, here are five teams with ties to the Jewish basketball diaspora:
1.) Tennessee Volunteers Legendary goofball Bruce Pearl — he's famous for wrestling students in a blow-up sumo outfit and showing up for a women's game shirtless and painted in orange — has turned around the Tennessee men's program. A New England Jew, Pearl was shunned in the late 1980's for tape-recording a recruit telling how another school offered him $80,000 and a new Blazer, and then turning it into the NCAAs. He had to beat the Division II bushes, but took the Southern Indiana Screamin' Eagles to the title before leading the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers to the Sweet Sixteen.
The Volunteers were ranked #1 earlier this summer after a team-bonding trip to a concentration camp, an experience that got Pearl all teary-eyed talking about his distant relatives in the Holocaust on HBO's Real Sports. Pearl is often criticized for his wild antics and bright orange blazer, but give him credit for two things: Dick Vitale trashed him and he managed to humanize Pat Summit for God's sake. I am putting my sheckels where my mouth is and picking UT to win it all in one bracket.
2.) UCLA Bruins Although the real "Jewish Jordan," Jordan Farmar, is now with the Lakers, the Bruins still have coach Scott Garson. According to JewishJournal.com, Garson's "family loved two things: Judaism and basketball. His mother, Corinne, was president of the Woodland Hills Reform congregation Kol Tikvah, while his father, Lee, is a UCLA alum who coaches youth basketball." The Bruins are one of the favorites this year, thanks to Garson's handling of their stupendous backcourt of Darren Collison, Josh Shipp and Russell Westbrook. For people like me who are always looking for a Catholic angle, know that Garson learned his X's and O's under the ample belly of the great Rick Majerus. And hey ladies, he's single.
3.) Memphis Tigers What is about the Volunteer State and the Chosen coaches? According to the Memphis Commerical Appeal, coach John Calipari, "a Catholic of Italian heritage, was recently at the Anshei Sphard-Beth El Emeth Congregation speaking to an audience of Orthodox Jews about community and charity and his new favorite theme of bouncing back from personal and career misfortune." Sure, some believe Calipari has a reputation of running a clean fast-break and a dirty program, but if the dude spreads the Tiger love with the Torah, it must mean something. Never forget: It's hard out here for a pimp. Bonus points for Calipari's stumping for Tennessee's 9th District Jewish Congressman, Democrat Steve Cohen.
4.) Duke Yes, Coach K is undeniably hard to root for, but the #1 name in college hoops (which hasn't won a game in a couple of years, by the by) has a 6'5" Jewish 6th-man former Illinois "Mr. Basketball" known for really strange facial contortions, which means you should definitely– Oh, who am I kidding? Don't root for Duke; it's like cheering for Bill Kristol.
5.) Special Underdog Pick: American University First of all, what's more egalitarian and patriotic than American University? After Barack's speech, I think it's clear we're all in this NCAA tournmanet bracket together. Plus, American is the alma mater of the dude who runs the website BlackJew.net (which is exactly what it sounds like.) As Mr. BlackJew himself said:
"when we finally reached this impossible goal of going to the NCAA Tournament it was a dream come true. Win or lose we still made it! AU IS GOING TO THE BIG DANCE. ONCE AN EAGLE ALWAYS AN EAGLE."
Unfortunately, American is playing Tennessee in the first round, but my fellow hoop friends, that is what "One Shining Moment" is all about.
Go Marquette! Nobody call me for three weeks.