The night after the National Basketball Association season was scheduled to begin, Jon Scheyer, perhaps the best Jewish basketball player of his generation, was in his Tel Aviv apartment talking about Israeli cuisine and hoops in the United States and the Holy Land.
“It’s nuts,” he said last week of the NBA lockout. “We have a big game tomorrow against Real Madrid. To me, it’s the highest level in the world right now.”
Scheyer was referring to his new team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, the wildly successful basketball organization that signed Scheyer to a two-year contract this summer. Playing at the highest level is something Scheyer has done for years: He led Duke University to college basketball’s 2010 national championship as the team’s captain. At a reception for the team at the White House Rose Garden, President Obama called Scheyer his “homeboy from the Chicago area.”
Many think Scheyer has the chops to become one of the best Jewish basketball players ever. At 24 years old, Scheyer already has been honored twice by the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame, so it wasn’t surprising that a crowd greeted him at Ben Gurion Airport when he landed in July. On the day he moved to Israel, immediately after he declared citizenship, the website ynetnews.com published a news story with the headline “‘Jewish Jordan’ Jon Scheyer Makes Aliyah.”
There is no Israeli basketball team quite like Maccabi.
“Every team is coming at us every night,” Scheyer said. “It’s just like Duke.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv is the last undefeated club in the Israeli League and one of two unbeatens left in the Adriatic League. What’s more, Israel has never sent a team besides Maccabi to the Euroleague final; Maccabi has five Euroleague titles of its own. Last season, it lost in the championship.
This isn’t the first time Scheyer has combined Judaism and basketball. Before he joined Duke’s legendary team, Scheyer guided Glenbrook North High School to the 2005 Illinois state championship, the first title for a North Shore suburban school in 27 years. The feat was all the more remarkable for another reason: All five of Glenbrook North’s starters (plus the first player off the bench) were at least half-Jewish. It’s hard to imagine another championship basketball team with a starting lineup that knows the difference between a chest pass and Passover.
Scheyer was raised in the sort of town where two B’nai Mitzvah per weekend was not uncommon. Scheyer’s father is Jewish, and Scheyer became a man on a November weekend in 2000.
“I always joke with him that I’m going to get his Bar Mitzvah invitation signed and sell it on eBay,” said Sean Wallis, a captain on Glenbrook North’s championship team who now works as a consultant in Chicago. For party favors, Scheyer gave out T-shirts printed with the phrase “Jonathan in the Zone.” His theme was basketball.
How could it not be? Scheyer and his buddies grew up in the Chicago suburbs when Michael Jordan and the Bulls won six NBA championships between 1991 and 1998.
It wasn’t long before Scheyer was forging a profile of his own. He dropped 21 points in his third varsity game and attracted serious attention from colleges as early as his sophomore season.
“He was tall and really, really skinny,” said Dave Weber, his high school coach. “I thought he was going to break in half sometimes.”
But his lanky frame didn’t stop Scheyer from scoring. He led the team in points and assists as a freshman, and was an all-state selection the next season. Scheyer ended up rewriting Glenbrook North’s record books: his 3,034 points in high school was the fourth most in Illinois history.
It was during his junior year, in Glenbrook North’s improbable run to the state championship, that Scheyer established his bona fides in a Jewish sports community that adores its own. The Spartans were so popular that they received police and fire-truck escorts during their victory parade.
“No one ever thought it could happen,” recalled Weber, who still coaches the team. “It was bigger than anything I’ve ever been through in sports.”
The allure of Glenbrook North wasn’t just that it was reminiscent of Hickory High School with its own Jimmy Chitwood. It was more like “Hoosiers” meets “The Chosen.” Even the rabbi from a local synagogue showed up at the school’s first playoff game with a sedimentary keepsake from Israel. He named it the Rally Rock.
“Jewish, white, none of that matters to me in terms of a basketball player,” Scheyer told me over Skype. “I didn’t want our team to be popular because we were all Jewish. I wanted our team to be talked about because of how great of a team we were.”
The Scheyer frenzy hit a fever pitch at the famed Proviso West Holiday Tournament during his senior year, which happened to fall on the fourth night of Chanukah. By that time, Scheyer had committed to play at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski, another Chicago native, and the coach was part of the standing-room-only crowd that watched what the Chicago Tribune called “the greatest performance in the 45-year history of the Proviso West tournament.”
Scheyer scored 21 of his tournament-record 52 points in the game’s final 75 seconds. A Duke improv troupe later filmed a sketch, titled “Jon Scheyer in 75 Seconds,” that features him riding a bicycle into the campus Hillel, emerging in a tallit and a flowing beard, and spinning a dreidel that lands on a gimmel. (The clip has been viewed more than 160,000 times on YouTube.)
Maccabi began courting Scheyer before he graduated from Duke last spring. He was coming off a four-year career that he capped with a national championship, but Scheyer went undrafted by NBA teams. While playing in the 2010 NBA Summer League, he suffered an eye injury and moved home for most of the year. He joined an NBA Development League team in February and averaged 14 points per game while wearing protective goggles.
That’s when Maccabi came calling again. With the NBA in a lockout that shows no signs of ending anytime soon, his friends and family sold him hard on the opportunity to play in Israel. Some of them had visited on Birthright trips and told him how much they cherished their 10-day visits. The process took more than a year, but Scheyer finally signed with Maccabi in July.
Starring immediately in Tel Aviv would be like earning All-American honors as a freshman at Duke — not even Scheyer did that — and the transition to the Israeli basketball court hasn’t been as glamorous as his arrival. He has yet to play in Maccabi’s two Euroleague games, and he has averaged about 10 minutes per game in the Adriatic and Israeli leagues.
“When I was going to Duke, you know it’s going to be such a high level, but you don’t know what to expect until you get to your first practice,” Scheyer said. “No matter how many times you watch, or your teammates have told you, you just need to experience it. The game is played differently. It takes a little time to get adjusted.”
In the meantime, Scheyer says he is savoring Tel Aviv. He insists that he is not looking past his time abroad, much as he’s striving for an NBA contract some day, and he has been particularly pleased with his new homeland’s culinary fare.
“Being a picky eater, to say I like the food here, that says a lot,” Scheyer said. “Italian, a Thai restaurant that’s very good, some American restaurants.”
Then he remembered where he was.
“I haven’t had a falafel yet,” he admitted. “I’ll probably be made fun of. I need to have a falafel and shwarma.”
Ben Cohen writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal. He has also written for Deadspin, Grantland and the Awl. This article originally appeared on Tablet Magazine, tabletmag.com.