The nation’s top scorer plays for a school and a people
By David Waldstein
They lined up for blocks along Amsterdam Avenue in New York in December, standing in the cold for two hours, hoping to squeeze into the modest Max Stern Athletic Center for a glimpse at the hottest college basketball team in the city.
Inside, the Yeshiva men’s basketball team, led by Ryan Turell, the top scorer in the country with his bouncing blond curls and smooth, feathery touch, was preparing to tip off.
About 500 people were turned away that night, unable to fit inside the 1,000-seat gym that has rocked and rolled over a three-year span in which the Maccabees compiled a 54-2 record, including 18-1 this year (11-0 in conference play). Turnout was similar for their next home game, against the Merchant Marine Academy last Tuesday, when Turell dropped 31 points to become Yeshiva’s career leading scorer — with Leon Rose, president of the New York Knicks, in the seats watching.
Others could not get in, and some of them peered from a window as fans inside, many of them wearing yarmulkes, the traditional Jewish head covering, stood and chanted “MVP” for their hero.
“I came to Yeshiva from London and didn’t know anything about basketball,” said Michael Smolowitz, a second-year student and fan. “Once I got here, I was bombarded with it. It’s quite a big deal.”
College basketball has been in a decadeslong slump in the New York area, a place that used to cherish the spectacle and passion of the college game. But at Yeshiva, a Jewish university tucked into Washington Heights — not much more than a long 3-pointer from the snarled traffic of the Cross Bronx Expressway — the game is thriving.
The Maccabees are ranked sixth in the country, led by a Division III superstar who turned down offers from Division I schools so that he could be a “Jewish hero” at little Yeshiva, where the coach works full time as a lawyer, the weight room is smaller than at many high schools and the training table pales compared to what student-athletes are served at Duke and Michigan.
But at Yeshiva, with a student body of about 2,600 undergrads, Turell has fulfilled his quest to be a hero. He is known there and around the world. He can barely make it across campus without several admirers greeting him and wishing him luck. Elliot Steinmetz, the head coach and a former Yeshiva player, says he receives emails from across the globe expressing support and admiration for the team, which has become a kind of torch bearer for Jewish athletic pride.
“I got an email this morning from someone in Australia, who wanted to know where he could buy a YU jersey,” Steinmetz said. “He wanted to wear it around the streets of Sydney. I get contacted by Jewish people in Alaska, England, South America. Pretty much everywhere.”
Yeshiva owes a good deal of its success to Turell, the team’s transcendent star. On a recent morning, a group of students spotted him as he strolled to campus from his nearby apartment along Amsterdam Avenue. As word spread, they poured out of a local pizza joint, pointing their phone cameras toward him, shaking his hand and asking questions about his game that night.
A lithe, 6-foot-6 senior with lofty professional and spiritual aspirations, Turell is averaging 28.1 points per game, the most by any player in all three divisions of the NCAA, male or female. Turrell says he’s fine to lead the country in scoring, as long as it helps the team. But if the Maccabees don’t win a championship, it would be “pointless,” he said.
Turell has scored at least 30 points six times this season and has surpassed 40 twice, including a school-record 51-point performance against Manhattanville in November.
“I don’t care who it’s against, if you drop 50 on someone, that says something,” said Michael Sweetney, a Yeshiva assistant coach and former forward for the Knicks and Chicago Bulls in the NBA. “But the best part was, we really needed it that night.”
As the season hurtles toward tournament play, Turell, who turned 22 last Thursday, is the leading candidate for Division III player of the year. It’s a nice feeling, sure, but Turell shrugs. All that matters to the player some have dubbed the Jewish Larry Bird is a chance at postseason play.
“We didn’t get the chance before,” Turell said. “For a lot of people, it was a story without an ending.”
As Yeshiva continues to win, some experts wonder if its record is inflated by playing in the Skyline conference, which is not the most competitive in Division III. When the Maccabees faced highly ranked Illinois Wesleyan in December, the game was seen as a litmus test of where Yeshiva stood. An unprecedented hype buzzed across Division III basketball. Fans lined up for hours to get in.
Illinois Wesleyan won, 73-59, snapping Yeshiva’s 50-game winning streak. But Titans coach Ron Rose left Washington Heights impressed.
“Turell is at the top of everyone’s scouting report, and he still gets his points,” Rose said. “Yeshiva is legit. I saw all the rhetoric about their strength of schedule. I don’t buy it. There is no question they can compete at the highest level.”
For Turell, the highest level could also mean a professional career. He hopes to play in the NBA and eventually in Israel. NBA teams have sent scouts to Yeshiva’s games, and Turell assiduously practices from the NBA 3-point line to increase his chances — he shoots until he makes at least 300 shots per day.
It was on just such a long-range shot on Tuesday that Turell broke Yeshiva’s career record for most points scored (he now has 1,906). After the game, Steinmetz sent the young hero a message to say he was proud of him. Turell texted right back.
“Everything you said we would do has come true,” Turell wrote. “Now, let’s go win a national championship.”