Many teenage boys playing basketball in their driveways pray they’ll grow up and find a job they like, a wife they love, and a report on ESPN praising them.
Yeshiva University power forward Gabriel Leifer amazingly can check off all three at the young age of 22. But he isn’t satisfied. He wants an NCAA championship and feels he was robbed of the opportunity the last two years, as the post seasons in the spring of 2020 and the spring of 2021 were canceled because of the pandemic.
The 6’6”, 220-pounder is muscular, nearly impossible to defend near the basket, and can step outside and hit deep three-pointers. He recently became the fourth player in YU men’s basketball history to score 1,000 points and grab 1,000 rebounds, and he is the all-time assist leader at Yeshiva with 495.
The number two-ranked Maccabees, who own the second-best winning streak in Division III history at 42 consecutive wins (the record is 60) and the largest current streak in all of men’s basketball, were recently featured in an ESPN.com article by Gary Belsky. When Leifer joined the YU squad five years ago, did he expect to be written about on the most heralded sports media site?
“Not even close,” he told The Jewish Press in a phone interview. “That’s something you dream about as a kid. But it’s a reality now.”
The harsh reality of Covid-19 meant Leifer, who was a senior last year, would have been left to wonder what could have been. But the National Collegiate Athletic Association granted four-year players an additional season of eligibility as graduate students. Leifer has a full-time job doing real estate tax at Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and is studying for his CPA exam. Returning to the team meant getting up early for 6 a.m. practices.
Leifer, who grew up in Lawrence on Long Island and is a graduate of David Renov Stahler Yeshiva High School for Boys in Woodmere, said he had to factor in several things before deciding to bring his talents back to Washington Heights. “It was definitely a hard decision,” Leifer said. “It’s a unique opportunity, but at the same time, I’ve got to move on and get my career going.”
Last season there was no Division III post-season tournament as some teams didn’t take the court at all. Yeshiva managed to schedule only seven games but won them all. The season before, the Maccabees won their first two NCAA tournament games and made it to the Sweet 16 against Randolph-Macon (now ranked number one) – only to have the game cancelled by the beginning of the pandemic. The Maccabees (6-0) had a 17-game winning streak snapped in 2018-19 by Farmingdale State. YU was last beaten by Occidental College in November 2019, before going on a 36-game winning streak leading into this season.
According to head coach Elliot Steinmetz, Leifer’s decision was a big one. “From the beginning, Gabe and I had talked about the possibility and it really was about his work and home situation,” Steinmetz told The Jewish Press via email. “Once he got the ok at home and the okay at work, obviously it immediately changed the potential trajectory of our season in a positive way. He’s a special kid and a special leader. His impact on the game, on and off the court, is beyond anything I’ve seen at this level. He makes everyone around him better constantly.”
Leifer could score 20 points a game if he wanted to, but he does the other things his team needs. It is not surprising that entering the week of November 22, he leads the squad in rebounds, averaging 10.3 a game. It’s a treat to behold him do his impression of the play of Denver Nuggets star Nikola Jokic, with dazzling dimes, sometimes nearly full-court outlet passes, that lead to layups for fellow players. He tops the team with 6.5 assists per game. His 9.7 points per game are a result of the depth of offensive firepower on the team. In his career, Leifer boasts 1,377 points, 1,035 rebounds, 155 steals, and 145 blocked shots.
Senior Ryan Turell has gotten most of the press and hype and deservedly so, as he is likely the best player in Division III. The Los Angeles Times reported that at least two NBA teams were scouting him, and if drafted it is believed that he would be the first Orthodox player drafted into the NBA. Whether or not that happens remains to be seen. But Turell has elite range from behind the arc, with a career 44% mark, going 121-275, so he could project as a Kyle Korver-type player. It will be up to NBA scouts and executives to evaluate him at a combine when he plays against top competition.
Turell leads the team in scoring, averaging 25.3 points a game, and he delights fans with jarring reverse jams. The 6’7 guard/forward recently eclipsed 1,500 career points, and he’s gained about 30 pounds of muscle since he hit the YU campus, allowing him to be in the NBA conversation. Were Leifer less mature or on a team with a head coach not as skilled, there could be jealousy at not being the top scoring option. But it’s not the case as the two players have great chemistry. “Not that many people get to play with someone with such a skillset,” Leifer said of Turell. “It makes the game [easier] for me and a lot more fun.”
If 10 years ago, someone had come to Hollywood with a script of Yeshiva University owning the best undefeated streak and yarmulke-wearing players vying for a national championship, movie moguls would wonder if it was a comedy. Nobody’s laughing now.
“When I first started, other teams saw how we looked on the layup lines and you could tell they were happy to be playing against us,” Leifer said. “Now, it’s the opposite. Our layup lines dominate theirs. They don’t want to come in and play us because they know we’re gonna beat them.”
There is a concern that since YU is winning by such huge margins, they could potentially be vulnerable if they play a game that is close in the final seconds. Would the team have the proper poise? It doesn’t appear that Steinmetz is cultivating a team that gets too big an ego. An example of this is sensational sharpshooter Eitan Halpert. The shooting guard with 21 three-pointers so far this year may have a shot to eclipse his brother Simcha’s mark of 111 threes made for the Macs a few seasons ago. In a recent game against Mount Saint Vincent, Halpert demoralized the Dolphins with 27 points, nailing six three-pointers. But in a post-game interview with announcers on the YU broadcast, rather than patting himself on the back, he said his team needed to play better defense. This was in a game his team won 81-49.
Opposing defenses haven’t figured out how to stop YU. The team employs a unique motion offense that has drawn national attention and has been shown on the YouTube show Slappin’ Glass. There are rules to the offense but there are no set plays. It is believed that no other team has the same offense, which is unpredictable and impossible to scout. In addition, if an opponent double-teams Turell, Leifer or Halpert can punish them.
Point guard Ofek Reef is a sparkplug with immense athletic ability. He has shown a consistent prowess to penetrate and get to the basket and he is also a threat to shoot from distance, notching 16.3 points per game and hitting all 13 free-throws he has attempted.
Graduate student transfer Jordan Armstrong, who is 6’8”, can score near the basket and be a tough defensive presence near the rim. Opposing players driving to the hoop have not been happy to meet Armstrong and Leifer in the paint. Another graduate student who transferred to YU is guard Ethan Lasko. Lasko, who was once on the roster for the famed Division I school Indiana University, is a bulldog on defense, has a good shot, and can also drive to the basket. He would start on most teams but unselfishly has taken the 6th man role and run with it, averaging 8.2 points and 4.2 assists. Meanwhile, forward Matan Zucker comes off the bench with high energy and good fundamentals.
This season, the Maccabees have outscored opponents by a margin of 551-339, never scoring fewer than 81 points and never allowing an opponent to score more than 69. Their field goal shooting percentage is nearly 55% while holding opponents to 34%. YU has connected on twice as many three-pointers as its opposition with twice as many steals.
Leifer said this team has the best depth of any he’s been on. He said he loves learning Daf Yomi every day and endures the early basketball practices, which are scheduled so early because of the dual curriculum. It’s not lost on him that when he’s doing sprints, most college students are in the middle of REM sleep.
“It’s killer, especially when it’s dark out and it’s the middle of the winter,” Leifer said. “There’s nothing you want to do less at that time in the morning. But it makes sense for the schedule of YU. At eight o’clock you can say people are just waking up and you already had a great workout. Basketball is not only about talent. It’s about discipline and how much you push yourself each day to get better.” Asked if he feels pressure to continue the streak, he said, “there’s pressure to win every game even if we didn’t have the streak,” and that he would be fine with losing every regular season game if the Maccabees could win the NCAA championship.
One of Leifer’s trademarks is that he generally keeps the same expression. He’ll dive for a loose ball like the game depended on it, even with his team up by 25 points. By looking at him, one could not tell if he swished or air-balled a jump shot, though it’s uncommon for him to miss a shot by a lot. One time he did show emotion was after a tough 81-75 to loss to Farmingdale State in the Skyline Championship game in 2019. “I wish I could have done more,” he said, even though he had a monster of a game, with 27 points, 15 rebounds, and eight assists.
It is not hyperbole to say this could be the best Jewish collegiate basketball team in history. Clamping down on an opponent’s best player is something the team is proud of, and recently they held St. Joseph’s College forward Chris Mikos to 17 points, whereas he’d averaged 28.5 points a game.
Asked about Steinmetz and assistant coach Mike Sweetney, a power forward who played in the NBA for the New York Knicks, Leifer said he was lucky to be coached by both. “Coach Steinmetz, he’ll send me a clip in the middle of the day just showing me what I should do when a specific thing happens,” Leifer said. “He has set the tone of discipline and built an environment of winning.” And Steinmetz, an attorney and graduate of YU, is in his eighth year coaching the team with a total record of 123-53. Leifer added that “everyone loves Mike [Sweetney] because he’s brought a lot to our team and we’re grateful to work with such an amazing person.”
Leifer’s diet consists of “whatever is on the table,” and his favorite NBA player is Kevin Durant for his ability to score in so many ways. He said it was tough to have two tournaments cancelled but that it’s important to maintain the proper mindset.
“We were upset as players,” Leifer said. “But you have to look at the big picture and the right decision was made. Basketball is not life and death. There were people dying and getting sick. We definitely want everyone to be safe, to be well and healthy. From a basketball perspective, there are a million unwritten stories about what could have happened if we would have played. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that we are happy to able to play now, we’re happy to get the fans back, and we have to make sure that we win.”
The Max Stern Athletic Center allows in fans with proof of vaccination to up to 70% capacity. It’s not a huge gym and there’s no guarantee there will be room if you try to attend, but MacsLive.com (which streams the games and has a YouTube channel) delivers a professional home broadcast that is completely student-run. Credit goes to producer Akiva Poppers as well as commentators Yehoshua Segal, David Schwartzman, Daniel Melool, and Zach Tuchman for a tremendous broadcast that features instant replay on great plays, as well as commentators who are knowledgeable, humorous, and even provide invaluable insight on the opposing team. Turell’s brother, Jack, took the mic during one broadcast – and he really should open for Elon Gold as he is a comedic revelation. He correctly said that Leifer looked like Moses Malone and has “oven mitts” for hands.
In an e-mail, Poppers stressed Leifer’s value, writing that “Gabe is the most valuable player on the Macs and one of the best collegiate passing bigs in recent memory. His ability to balance work and life with a years-in-the-making mission to win a National Championship is a clear indication of Gabe’s dedication and commitment to the program.”
The star has won numerous athletic and academic awards, including the Skyline Conference Player of The Year and Scholar-Athlete of The Year. Last year his G.P.A. was 3.73. He has the option to play professionally in Israel, should he ever choose to. As if he weren’t well-rounded enough, he also plays the trumpet and is one of the few people with the skillset to dunk on you and then do your taxes. He must have run the numbers and calculated that it would not require a Maccabee miracle or a small jug of oil lasting for eight nights to achieve his dream.
Should the team execute its game plan, maintain defensive intensity, remain healthy, and shoot like they are capable of, these Maccabees have a legitimate shot to cut down the nets in March and strike a blow for Jewish pride worldwide. In truth, they have done so already, regardless of the final result.
Leifer said the team is taking nothing for granted and knows that there are tougher games later in the schedule – including what will be their biggest, regular season home game when they host fourth-ranked Illinois-Wesleyan on December 30.
What would it mean to Leifer if this team went all the way? “It would mean that we accomplished something crazy,” he said. “It would give a lot of hope to young kids to think they could accomplish something on such a level and build the brand at YU. Obviously, you dream of it as a kid to get to a championship at every level. But to win a D-III championship would mean that everything I’ve done was well worth it.”