For fans of the NBA, getting a glimpse of players honing their craft has become a popular off-season treat. But lately, there’s been an added surprise for fans who read right-to-left: Several pros — including some of the league’s best — have been practicing at Jewish high schools.
What was once a closely guarded secret has become hard to miss lately: in a recent clip posted to Instagram, the Houston Rockets’ James Harden – he with the beard that could make a Breslover blush – waits with a poster in Hebrew behind him on a passport quotes Midrash. In the background of the same shot Joel Embiid – the runner-up of the MVP (and Jewish Wedding Show Stealer) — hydrates under a proverb by Pirkei Avot.
The context clues – and the black and red color theme – give the location away: This is Shalhevet, an Orthodox school in Los Angeles whose gymnasium is also the site of weekly school assemblies. (Hence the posters.)
A few miles away and 11 months earlier, Laker superstars LeBron James and Russell Westbrook were spotted working out at the black-and-yellow decked out Samson Center — the gym at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles Boys High School, known as YULA.
The presence of marquee ballers at these schools is a downstream effect – and a rich reward for – a passion for basketball in the orthodox world that some might say verges on obsession. Both schools — which are athletic rivals, not to mention licenses — have opened these million-dollar gyms over the past decade; Shalhevet attracts Jewish schools from across the country for an annual tournament. And though you’ll never read about it in the schools’ brochures, their prime spots now mean possible celebrity for high school kids who think these players are larger than life.
What’s the appeal of hardwood dishes with Jewish wisdom on the walls? Not only are they relatively new, but they’re also well-cared for, available, and—crucially for some of the world’s most famous people—private. That means no kids peeking through the windows, let alone looking for autographs.
“They are looking for a very, very quiet, secluded, safe place,” said Rabbi Ari Segal, former principal of Shalhevet.
In Shalhevet, where players flock to the gym most days of the week at this time of year, the Shidduch was made a few years ago by a student then interning with Drew Hanlen, a highly sought-after private skills trainer. Hanlen is now using the school as a laboratory for a client list that includes Embiid, Harden and Celtics swingman Jayson Tatum, as well as the league’s only Jewish player Deni Avdija.
At YULA, the deal was originally made possible by an alum – who said he couldn’t comment due to a non-disclosure agreement. (YULA’s principal also declined to comment.)
Despite (or perhaps because of) the supposed secrecy of the workouts, the resulting videos are some of the most popular content of the NBA offseason. It was therefore inevitable that every school’s gym would be the stage for its own viral moment.
During a 2019 pickup game at YULA involving several NBA stars, Devin Booker, a Phoenix Suns mercury guard, protested against double occupation. A video of the exchange was posted online, sparking debate across the NBA world that remains unresolved.
Shalhevet’s biggest stir came in a 5-on-5 scrimmage involving not only perennial All-Stars Bradley Beal, Carmelo Anthony and Trae Young. but also the rapper 2 Chainz.
“This is the cream of the crop,” Segal said. “I mean, it was actually weird how small we are and even the size of our gym that they climbed there, but they climbed there.”
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NBA players who play ball at Shalhevet predate Hanlen, who pays a small rental fee to use the gym, according to Segal; In fact, the phenomenon is as old as the gym itself. Reportedly, dunk contest winner Blake Griffin was the first person to use it when it opened in 2015 describe the facility as “amazing”. in a video produced by the school.
(Speaking of dunks, “I flinched a few times when some guys threw dunks,” said Ryan Coleman, the school’s athletic director. Last summer, he recalled, hitting RJ Barrett — that’s the cornerstone of the New York Knicks franchise one so hard “I honestly thought the whole basket was going to fall off.” He survived.)
Though forbidden from being present during practice—Harden and Embiid are particularly sensitive to uninvited onlookers—Shalhevet students occasionally benefit from their closeness. Some snapped selfies, others memorabilia; The players have also signed shirts for the school to auction.
Aiden Bitran, a budding sophomore at Shalhevet and point guard on the school’s basketball team, was unaware of the NBA greats training behind the closed gym doors until he caught a glimpse of Beal and his favorite player, the UCLA Freshman Amari Bailey, caught shots fired through a crack in the window.
“I was going crazy,” said Bitran, 15. “My friends were like, ‘Yo, you gotta chill.'”
Segal, now Shalhevet’s chief strategy officer, said the friendliness of Hanlen’s flock has been consistent — even when the boys can get rough on the rims.
Last year, with the NBA offseason ending around the same time as Shalhevet’s induction, Segal asked Hanlen if he would send some players to meet the kids at a school barbecue. A bunch left, including Tatum and Beal, who signed a $251 million contract with the Washington Wizards this summer.
It was then that Bitran had a chance to meet Bailey – a player who he says is modeling his game after him.
During their hour-long conversation, Bailey, who has more than 500,000 Instagram followers, said, hangs out with Drake and considered a likely first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft, had a surprising revelation for Bitran and his friends: He’s also Jewish.
“He told us that his mother is Jewish,” Bitran said. “He says, ‘Yes, I have one of those yarmulkes you wear at home, brother.’ I’m like ‘Oh that’s cool.’ It was really cool.”
Another day, he slipped into the gym and spotted Tatum, who reached the NBA Finals with the Celtics last season, while taking a water break in the stands.
He introduced himself to Tatum and asked him if he could have the player’s personalized Jordan brand bracelet. Tatum said he couldn’t give him that – but he was willing to part with his sneakers. Tatum’s size 15 shoe now sits on a shelf in Bitran’s room.
Another player, Kelly Oubre of the Charlotte Hornets, initially put up more resistance.
“I’m like ‘Yo, Oubre, can I get your shoe?’ Bitran said, “He’s like, ‘Um, did you deserve it?'”
His answer: “Yes, brother. I work hard at school.”
But for Bitran, who aspires to play college basketball, the sweetest benefit wasn’t the shoes, but the few minutes each day when the end of Shalhevet’s 5:30 a.m. basketball practice overlaps with Hanlen’s crew’s warm-ups.
He has closely observed the habits and routines of the sports elite in those fleeting moments.
“If one day I want to be really great at what I do, I have to work hard,” he said. “And just watching them train and see what they’re doing, it’s just repetition after repetition after repetition of the same thing, over and over again.”