Shooting hoops in the Holy Land

Bill San Antonio

Three North Shore residents who have been playing basketball together in men’s leagues throughout the tri-state area for the last two decades will compete together later this month on a much larger stage for a much greater cause.

Great Neck Plaza residents Ayal Hod and Steve Cronin, and Roslyn Estates resident Jeff Sorkin, each 46, will suit up as members of the USA Men’s “Masters” over-45 team at the 19th World Maccabiah Games in Israel from July 17-30.

The Maccabiah Games, widely considered to be the Jewish world’s equivalent of the Olympic Games, take place every four years and are comprised of 31 men’s and women’s sports that span a variety of age levels. 

Roughly 9,000 athletes from 72 countries are set to participate in the games, according to Maccabiah’s official Web site.

Hod, Cronin and Sorkin each met roughly 20 years ago on the metropolitan men’s basketball league circuit, playing in leagues spanning from New York City to Fire Island and plenty of Jewish community centers in between. 

“I’ve known them both for years, so when I knew the tryout was coming around, I told them about it immediately,” Cronin said. “I said, ‘you’ve gotta do it, it’s an unbelievable experience,’ so I got them on the motor and got them into the program.”

Tryouts were held in Chicago, Ill., last fall and those who made the roster were notified by phone in April, Cronin said. 

The team held practices in Miami and New York City earlier this year and will be coached by Steven Groothius, the varsity coach at Dr. Krop High School in Miami, Fla.

Cronin played college basketball at Tufts University in the late 1980s and played two years of Israeli pro ball for Maccabi Tiberius from 1989-91 before moving back to the United States to pursue a career on Wall Street.

After graduating from Tufts in 1989, Cronin competed in the 13th iteration of the Maccabiah Games for the United States’ “Open” team, the over-20 age division, and qualified for the 2009 “Masters” over-35 team.

“It’s one thing to represent your country and there’s a sense of pride there, but the best part of this is representing your country as a Jew and that is an unbelievable feeling,” Cronin said. “It’s fantastic to share it with kids, to open their eyes to it because all they see is the NBA and there’s one Jew in the NBA, and to share this with them is beyond words. It’s a life-changing experience.”

The United States will square off against Israel, Brazil, Australia and Russia in pool play, and the teams with the best records will move on to the latter rounds of the tournament. 

Though the United States typically fields strong teams in the games, Hod said the competition will be fierce, as former professional players fill the rosters to represent their countries.

“This is how you measure yourself against top-notch players at your age level, and the guys on the Israeli national team played pro ball and were paid very well, so the competitive spirit is definitely there,” Hod said.

Once the all-time leading scorer at Yeshiva University, Hod said he turned down offers to play professionally in Israel and Europe, opting instead to complete his American citizenship and build his career in the fragrance and clothing industries. But, he said, he looks forward to competing against former pros in his first Maccabiah Games.

“It’s going to be a very weird feeling [playing against former pro players],” Hod said. “It would give me an answer to all these years of ‘what if,’ knowing I could have played [in Israel]. This year, I can find out what it’s like to play against all these guys who played over and see how I compare, even if we’re a bit past our time. I’ll have some indication of what could have been.”

Hod, who grew up in Israel, said he’ll be leaving on July 15 to arrive a few days early and visit family he hasn’t seen in nearly 30 years, but added he’ll be focused solely on Israel, the team’s first opponent, after the opening ceremonies subside.  

“That’s the one I’m looking forward to the most,” Hod said. “We’re playing them in the first game and hopefully the last, too. We’ve got to bring home the gold. That’s it.”

Sorkin, meanwhile, said he plans to attend the opening ceremonies with his two sisters and his mother, who swam in the Maccabiah Games as a teenager.

“I knew about the Maccabiah Games growing up, and to be able to participate and carry on my mother’s tradition is great,” Sorkin said. “It’s really great. It’s really a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

Sorkin, who attended Syracuse University but did not play for the Orange said he plays four times a week, and added that since making the team he’s followed in his mother’s footsteps by taking his workouts to the water. 

“We have a swimming pool, so I’m in the pool every morning trying to get in shape and represent the hustle in the United States,” Sorkin said.

Sorkin described himself as a “shooting forward” common to the international style of play, and said he, Hod and Cronin’s experience playing together – despite playing different positions – will help a United States team that has prepared sparingly for the games. 

Hod said Cronin has a solid offensive game in the low post but can be effective as a mid-range shooter as well, adding that the two work well on pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop plays, while Sorkin can shoot from anywhere on the floor. 

“They play the game right and look for each other,” Hod said. “There’s no ‘I’s’ on this team. When I drive, I know I can score if I want but I’m looking to set someone else up because I know they’d do the same for me.”

But Cronin, who said he’s had eight knee surgeries, said he understands he can’t do everything on the court he once could in his 20s, but is interested in testing the athleticism of the other teams in the field.  

“When you’re 40 years old, your body breaks down, so it’s challenging, and it’ll be interesting to see what Israel puts on the floor. Australia puts out a real athletic team, Russia is a strong team, and so on,” Cronin said. “But for me, the best part about this is sharing my experience with my kids and other kids that I coach here in Great Neck and it’s good they know there are Jews all over the world who are playing basketball.

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