The wonderful sounds of silence that emanated from Central Alabama last week was exactly the way the leaders of Birmingham and the Birmingham Jewish community wanted it.
A shriek of glee from Andi Berger momentarily broke that silence on Tuesday when she learned news that was exactly the way she wanted it, too!
For the first time ever, Birmingham and Birmingham’s Jewish Community Center hosted the JCC Maccabi Games which brought 900 athletes, ages 12-16 to town, along with another 225 tournament administrators. Birmingham’s Jewish population in a normal week is only 6,000, a fraction, one half of one percent, of the 1.2 million Southern Baptists that live in the metro. But last week there Jewish kids from 26 cities, 21 states and two foreign countries — Israel and the Ukraine– in our little burg, and the leadership of the Games were concerned, rightly, for everyone’s safety.
The JCC Maccabi Games, known as the ‘Jewish Olympics’, was ready for four days of action to heat up in baseball, basketball, dance, flag football, golf, tennis, soccer, swimming, track and field and volleyball at seven venues around town.
Meanwhile, full action was also resuming after a long blackout at nearby Overton Park.
Ibis, sidelined by his second ACL tear in four years, was given the vet’s okay to resume normal activities on Tuesday. It was finally time to rejoin his buddies and bitches in their favorite morning activity: prancing around the park’s green expanse while the two-legged doggie parents gab daily about nothing in particular. Some mornings the group might be ten or a dozen adults and as many off-leash fur children. Andi was happy to have Ibis back in flight.
However, a couple of miles away, the Birmingham JCC brass, along with the national office in New York, were concerned about the threats of violence across JCC’s in North America over the past six months. The fruitcake that was making the telephone threats has since been apprehended but the Birmingham center had been evacuated three times already and this wasn’t a time for complacency.
Meanwhile Ibis, off the doggie-disabled list, moved back up to the big league roster. But there’s some business still to be finished as he is in a 2-2 lifetime tie with the pesky squirrels. Ibis has caught two of them in his eight year career while two others ran from him laughing when he tore his ACL in pursuit. Considering Ibis has no more ACL’s to tear, he enters overtime as the slight favorite.
Birmingham, on the other hand, wanted to ensure peace with dogs, squirrels and the world during the Games last week. We are the second smallest city, next to Akron, to ever host the Games. An extraordinary show of cooperation between the City, it’s police force, the FBI and the JCC administration with security presence overflowing, ensured a peaceful week as athletes were bussed around town, with police escort, from venue to venue and the JCC headquarters. Locally, 1,200 people answered the call and volunteered to help things flow smoothly. Proudly, Medjet was a corporate sponsor of the Games. Even though the only ones permitted to attend the competition had to be backgrounded and issued admission credential badges, there were no unfortunate issues like in the 1960s which sometimes still haunts this great town’s reputation.
Lavish opening ceremonies inside UAB’s Bartow Arena kicked off the weeklong 35th annual Maccabi Games. Auburn head basketball coach Bruce Pearl, a past Maccabi (Hebrew meaning “sports”) Games participant, delivered an inspirational and passionate keynote motivational address to the young athletes. Jewish reggae star Matisyahu provided the entertainment. I didn’t understand a word.
However, Ibis and his ten-month old brother Deuce were not pleased when Andi and I agreed to house two of the out-of-town athletes for the week. We were one of 250 homes around town doing the same. I can’t tell you I’m nuts about house guests, but Ibis and Deuce take it to a level that’s unprecedented in anti-social behavior. Their non-stop barking and growling won’t put them in the traditional B&B business.
Our request for two athletes turned into counter-ask by the Games brass for three and then, when host families got tight, they asked us to take four and they’ll throw in an extra red host family t-shirt. Too good of a deal for a Jew, even a converted one, to turn down. With the entire upstairs level of our house that has been vacant since Scott left in 2002, Andi said ‘why not?’ And then she told me.
A couple of months ago my first cousin Andy Sachs dropped a note and mentioned their 16-year old son Ben was coming to Birmingham as part of the Westchester, New York “JCC on the Hudson” delegation. I had never met Ben and figured if we had to have people stay at the house, it might as well be mishpucha.
Ibis didn’t give a shit about family or not, so when Ben and three of his teammates arrived to play in the 16-year-old basketball tournament, you would have thought Ibis got hacked by an elbow under the hoop. Neither he nor his kid brother were very welcoming. I admit, however, there is part of their anti-social attitude that makes me very proud. It’s the mantra in our home– Andi has never met a stranger and I’ve never met a neighbor. Ibis and Deuce share my way. Good boys.~
As it turns out the New York basketball team was pretty good. Make that “damn good”! All ten guys on the team are varsity high school players and the four living on the second level at our house were key cogs. Ben, the ultimate role player, gave quality minutes off the bench on defense and if he was unguarded he’d make the shot. Zeke Blauner was probably the best athlete on the team. He already pocketed an impressive gold medal last month as part of the select USA 16-year-old team that competed in the once-every-four-years World Maccabi Games in Jerusalem where they smashed the Argentinians to win the gold. Alex Feuerstein was, in my opinion, the best player on the floor with a (for those who remember) Hall of Famer Dave DeBusschere-style game of great defense, tough rebounding and a scoring touch you wouldn’t necessarily expect in that role. Impressive kid. The fourth member of our entourage was Brett Robinson who never saw a shot he didn’t like, and made most of them, too!
Ibis and Deuce didn’t really care these kids could ball. All they knew was they were in their house and camped in their lanes way too long.
And it took some acclimation time for Andi and me, too. We’ve been away from teenagers for a long time and the digital world has progressed…I really mean “regressed”…to kids having their iPhones attached to their hands every minute. They just stare into them. If you ask a question, it’s 50/50 you’ll get a response and if you do it’s very much a Twitter-like, 140-character or less sound bite.
We are also certain one of our kids set an all-time Maccabi games record with a 38- minute shower. It was evening, in the bathroom right over our bedroom as Andi, exhausted from shuttling and laundry and cooking and cleaning was trying to fall asleep. Four times she stomped into the den to tell me the lad was still in the shower. “Clean kid” was about my only response. I can’t wait for the August water bill.
Finally, her fourth visit produced the not too sweet demand of “go up there and tell him to turn the water off!” Yeah right, that’s just what I was going to do. The New York Post headline of “Bama Shower Perv” ran across my crawl. I made the New York Post once already this year in May when Cindy Adams called “Big League Dream” a “homerun” and if I can’t guarantee they mention the book is available on Amazon and bigleaguedream.com in my pervert story, then the kid can run the water all night. (You didn’t expect me not to get a cheap book promo in, did you?) If this was a soccer match, I’d document that Andi fell asleep in the 39th minute.
Perhaps the New York team didn’t communicate very much with us and took long showers but they knew how to win on the court. They won the gold two years ago as 14-year-olds during the Games in Milwaukee and were on a mission once again. Thirty-two teams made up the 16-year-old draw in the games played at Birmingham Southern College and all of them were sorry they drew ‘our’ kids. In game one, the New Yorkers played host Birmingham and drubbed them 57-35. They followed that with a 65-26 romp over the kids from Phoenix. Las Vegas crapped out against our guys on day two, 59-14, while Memphis then became the victim of anti-southern hospitality 74-43. Incredibly, after the four preliminary games, our guys wound up as “only” the second seed in the playoff round behind Boca Raton, who was even more impressive.
Playoffs got underway with Memphis once again while Ibis and Deuce were at home enjoying the quiet. That didn’t last too long with a 70-34 pounding. ‘We’ won ‘our’ first five games by a combined total of 173 points and an average of 35 points a game. It was my kind of team: I could be in the car on the way home by halftime. It was Golden State against the Nets for five games. All of our house guests took turns playing big roles in each win. Andi and I were really proud of “our” boys; Ibis and Deuce didn’t really feel the same way.
All top four seeds advanced to the medal round: Boca, NY, Dallas and Baltimore. As the #2 seed we drew Dallas in the three spot. Jerry Feuerstein, Alex’s dad, became my game handicapper and “Jerry the Jew” saw a tough one looming, installing our kids as only a 2.5 point favorite over one-loss Dallas. Hopefully he’s a better attorney than an oddsmaker as New York, with his son Alex smothering and neutralizing the Dallas big gun, rolled into the gold medal game 67-48.
What could be more illustrative of American Jewish Olympics than the kids from New York playing Boca Raton for the gold? Writers in Tel Aviv couldn’t script it that well. Rabbis everywhere beamed. They also were the two best teams among the 32. “Jerry The Jew” made Boca a four point pick, probably because the Boca head coach showed up wearing a suit and tie while our coach wore the same lucky red “JCC on the Hudson” tee and backwards Mets cap he’d been wearing all week. The parental throng from New York, who’d spent five days (which must have seemed like a month) in Birmingham, were concerned their kids hadn’t played a close nor intense game all tournament.
This one went almost according to script except the #2 seed, our kids, turned the tables and hung on for a very exciting, back and forth, 70-67 win. They proudly wore gold around their necks all night at the festive closing ceremonies.
For Zeke it was striking gold twice in two months. For most of the others it was twice over the last two years. In one game or another all of “our” kids scored in double digits with Zeke a one game high of 28 points. Pretty impressive for Jews who normally are better negotiators than free throw shooters.
It was a great week for the City of Birmingham and our Jewish community. Rightfully, there’s much pride in what was accomplished.
For Ibis it was also a great week. His favorite day was Tuesday, when he came off the disabled list. His second favorite day was Friday. Everyone left.