Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, begins at sundown Saturday. But there's already cause for celebration among Jewish basketball fans thanks to Aaron Liberman, a freshman walk-on at Northwestern who also happens to be an Orthodox Jew. He hasn't yet appeared in a game this season because of a nasty case of shin splints, but he's easy to spot on the bench: He's the one wearing a yarmulke.
When Liberman is eventually given medical clearance to make his Northwestern debut, which he expects will be "pretty soon," he plans to wear his yarmulke on the court. (Northwestern is making two versions for him -- purple and white for home games, and purple and black for the road.) That will make him only the second yarmulke-clad player in Division I basketball history. The first such player was Tamir Goodman, the much-hyped "Jewish Jordan," who played for Towson in 2000 and 2001. But disagreements with a new coach derailed Goodman's college basketball career early in his sophomore year, leaving Division I hard courts yarmulke-free until Liberman's arrival this season.
And get this: Liberman, who's 6-foot-10 and was fifth in the nation in blocked shots for Valley Torah High School in Los Angeles in 2011, also plans to wear tzitzit -- the specially knotted fringes or tassels worn by observant Jews -- on the court. The tzitzit will be underneath his base-layer undershirt, and the fringes will be tucked into his shorts. Goodman didn't wear tzitzit while at Towson, so Liberman almost certainly will be Division I's first tzitzit-clad player. Mazel tov!
Liberman -- a soft-spoken, very likable kid, at least during a phone interview -- is aware of his rarefied status in the narrow region where athletics and Jewish religious apparel intersect, but he shrugs it off as no big deal. "Everyone here has been great toward me, and nobody's said anything about the yarmulke," he says. "Everyone's cool with it. They just see me as one of the guys."
Although yarmulkes are seldom seen in big-time college hoops, they can routinely be found down in Division III. That's because of Yeshiva University, many of whose players cover their heads (as does their coach, Dr. Jonathan Halpert).
Elliot Steinmetz wore a yarmulke while playing for Yeshiva from 1999 through 2002. Today he runs the website Jewish Hoops America and coaches basketball for North Shore Hebrew Academy High School on Long Island. North Shore is part of the Yeshiva League (not to be confused with Yeshiva University), a group of about two dozen Jewish schools in the New York-New Jersey area, whose games feature lots and lots of yarmulkes.
"Not all the kids in our league are necessarily Orthodox, but they're required to wear yarmulkes to school, so most of the schools require the players to wear them on the court as well," Steinmetz explains. "A lot of schools have the yarmulkes made in school colors, or with a school logo or a little basketball icon. It's a team accessory, like a headband or whatever."
Some schools take it even further, like Beren Academy in Houston, which has the players' names and uniform numbers printed onto their yarmulkes. (As you may recall, Beren is the school that successfully lobbied to have a state tournament semifinal game postponed earlier this year because it had originally been scheduled for a Friday night, which is the Jewish Sabbath.)
Steinmetz says a 12th-grader currently playing for Beren, Zach Yoshor, is good enough to be getting looks from Ivy League schools and some other lower-level Division I programs. But that doesn't necessarily mean there'll be another Division I yarmulke on the court next year. "He wears a yarmulke now because he's playing for a Jewish school," Steinmetz says. "But I don't think he will in college."
Wondering about the practicalities of wearing a yarmulke on the court? It's pretty straightforward: You keep it pinned on with a hair clip or bobby pin, and you wash it like any other accessory. Or at least that's the usual routine -- but not for Steinmetz when he played.
"We won our league championship when I was in 11th grade, and I kept wearing the same yarmulke, even when it got kind of sweaty and gross," he recalls. "It was a superstitious thing, like a baseball player who wears the same cap all season long. Believe it or not, I still have it, this cruddy, disgusting yarmulke, along with the trophy and my jersey and some other mementos from that season."
Yarmulke sightings in other sports are rare but not unheard of. One example came on May 9, 2010, when Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen removed his cap while walking around in the dugout, revealing a Mets yarmulke. That led to some surreal banter in the Mets' broadcast booth between play-by-play man Gary Cohen (who is Jewish) and color commentator Keith Hernandez (who most assuredly is not):
Hernandez: Was that a Met yarmulke right there?
Cohen: That’s exactly what that looked like.
Hernandez: How about that.
Cohen: It’s a bit of a surprise.
Hernandez: Well, it’s Sunday. [Painfully awkward pause follows.]
Hernandez: Did you, did you go to temple today?
Cohen: Not on Sunday, Keith. Saturday.
Hernandez: Oh! Excuse me, I’ve got it wrong, don’t I. I’ve gotta get my facts straight.
Cohen [laughing]: We’ll have the course in comparative religion right after the game.
Hernandez: No no no, we don’t have to. I had my catechism when I was young, please.
ESPN New York reporter Adam Rubin filled in the particulars on Warthen's headwear the following day (it's toward the bottom of this post):
"Yes, that was Dan Warthen spotted wearing a yarmulke in the dugout when he removed his Mets cap during Sunday’s game. The pitching coach explained that [first baseman] Ike Davis had received Mets yarmulkes from a rabbi, and gave one to Warthen. Warthen, who is Jewish, forgot he had it on when he placed his cap on and went out for the game, he indicated."
The thing is, baseball players spend most of their time wearing caps, and football and hockey players wear helmets. So even if a player in these sports chose to wear a yarmulke, we'd rarely get a peek at it. (And besides, Steinmetz says, "Jews don't play football -- our moms don't let us.")
That brings us back to basketball. Although the sport was once dominated by Jews, and a Jew scored the first basket in NBA history, there's never been a yarmulke-clad player in the NBA. Would Liberman, the freshman at Northwestern, like to be the first?
"If I can get there, why not?" he says. "But I'm just taking it one step at a time for now."
Fair enough. For his part, Steinmetz says observant Jewish players have a tough mountain to climb. "You have to remember, when these Orthodox kids are in high school, like the ones I coach, they love basketball and some of them have real ability, but it's not the focus of their lives," he says. "They're mostly focused on their SATs and getting into a good college."
In other words, they're nice Jewish boys -- probably too nice to make it to the NBA. Oy, such a pity.
Paul Lukas, sure enough, couldn't play tackle football because his mom wouldn’t allow it (although he did play flag football for five seasons). If you liked this column, you'll probably like his daily Uni Watch website, plus you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Want to learn about his Uni Watch Membership Program, be added to his mailing list so you'll always know when a new column has been posted, or just ask him a question? Contact him here.