Achieving Perfection

I’ve wanted to blog all summer. Every time I turned on my computer, I wanted to open up Word and write all day. Going into the summer, I thought I would have the time. But then my responsibilities at camp grew by the day. I was organizing rainy day schedules, planning tournaments, running trips, overseeing the Freshman Division, and helping to prepare for our ACA inspection. And then I got my team, and nothing would have made me happier than to be able to write — in the moment — about my experience as a Color War General, but it just wasn’t in the cards. But I wrote when I could. I never finished anything, but my folder is full of bits and pieces of articles that I hope to finish over the coming weeks.

For me, two days stand out more than any others this summer. The first was the day I found out I was going to be a General. The second was the Avoda Tournament, and if you’ve ever read me, you know how I feel about intercamp basketball. This year’s tournament was a special one — not because it was my last or because we won two of the three tournaments, but because there was a new energy this year that brought the second Monday of the second month to a whole new pantheon of awesomeness. Here is what I wrote the day after the tournament. We begin at halftime of the Championship game, Avoda vs. Bauercrest…

We came into the second half with a comfortable ten-point lead, but no lead is too safe when the Crest are in town. We’d experienced too much heartbreak over the past few summers and knew that nothing was over until the final whistle. But by now we’d seen the 2011 Bauercrest team on three occasions, and at none of those games did they even put up a fight. We outclassed them in every conceivable way. They could not hang with us. So we took the fight to them. Legs getting heavier and breaths getting shorter, Crest had to revert to an unpracticed 2-3 zone just to slow down our offensive onslaught. Gleason and Robbie were finding openings in the paint all day in the first game, so they had to retreat to the 23 just to contain the two of them. But their guards barely covered any ground, choosing instead to come out way too far, jump on every head fake, and recover WAY too slowly. That opened a window for Jake Alexander, who had been overlooked for most of the day but whose defensive intensity had not gone unnoticed. Early on in the second half, Crest pulled to within 5, but with the zone weakening and their wings not closing out on shooters, Jake hit two earth-shattering 3-pointers. Then Gleason took over, turning our offense into his own personal shoot-around. He hit floaters in the paint, sank jumpers from 15 feet, and drained fall-aways from the stands. And then something extraordinary happened.

Drew Lukoff, who now solely holds the Lukoff family legacy in his hands, was doing really well throughout the summer. He’s such a smart player. He can run the plays in his sleep, creates on his own, shoots 3’s, is dripping wet at the free throw line, and brings a level of controlled intensity that everyone in camp loves. For 99% of any basketball game in which he’s participating, Drew will be the coolest cucumber on the court. He won’t jaw at refs, coaches, opponents or teammates or do anything even resembling a boastful or self-important taunt. But every once in a while, Drew will let his freak flag fly. Whenever he hits a 3 in a big game (or in any game, for that matter), he has this funny habit of flexing his arms and shouting out “Let’s Go!” at the top of his lungs as he jogs back down court. He’s been doing this since he started camp in 2008. We noticed it right away on Junior Hoops, where I was coaching with Danny Feinberg and Mike Shtifter. From the beginning, Shtifter and Danny knew we were onto something special. In the years since, it’s evolved into Drew’s calling card. I’m told he can silence a room with it.

So anyway, we’re starting to build momentum behind Jake’s quick barrage. Robbie viciously rips another rebound away from Crest’s big man, who is quickly losing patience (and his wind). Tilly walks the ball up-court and the ball is eventually swung to Drew, who has a good look at a three.

And suddenly, time stops and brings me back to a moment identical to this one…two years earlier…and on the same court — but actually cross-court in the opposite corner. In another hotly-contested Avoda/Bauercrest finale, we were also starting to build a lead in the waning minutes of the Championship game. Jake Dennis passes the ball to our 14-year old starting point guard, Brandon Lukoff (older brother of Drew), who caught the ball about five feet behind the 3-point line and set himself like he wanted to shoot it. I remember the rush I had during those few seconds. At first, I wanted him to go for it. We were riding high and this would send us over the top. Crest would never recover. Then I got my head right and remembered we could get points in a much easier manner. So I waved him off as urgently as I could, but by the time the words reached him, the ball was already in the air and ripping through the net. Before I could even react, I glanced a look over at Brandon, who had just jumped [what seemed to be] 50 feet in the air, popping his Avoda letters out in front of his jersey. The sideline went crazy. Every Avodian in sight could feel what was happening. When the bounces are going your way and shots like that are going in, you know victory can’t be far off. But that wasn’t the case that year. Bauercrest fought back, capitalized on a couple of critical mistakes, and staged an unforgettable 15-point comeback to shock everyone in attendance. I choose to focus on the moments in that tournament that were great for us, which is pretty easy considering we dominated 90% of the Championship game. Shudder.

Back to Drew. He hasn’t looked great from three for most of the summer. He hit one or two at the Bournedale tournament and we know he’s capable of hitting them, but it hasn’t been there today and I want Jake and Gleason to keep shooting because they’re unstoppable right now. But the ball-side defender was late getting back (typical), Drew was open, and he always has the green light, so he let it fly.

At first, it hit off the front of the rim, as many missed shots do. But then it caught a little bit of the far side and rolled along it. But it didn’t roll in the hoop; it just kept rolling straight until the rim started to curve. There, the train went off the tracks, so to speak. The ball detached itself from the rim and slightly tapped the backboard before catching a ride on the OTHER side of the rim, now rolling down. But it didn’t keep rolling this time. No, the rim loosened up just a smidge at the perfect time. The ball hopped off the rim and dropped cleanly through the net. Three points. Just like Drew planned it.

Of course, my first instinct was to pump my fist, as I am known to do on occasion. But again, I was more interested in a Lukoff brother’s reaction than my own. And there he was, [allegedly] 60 feet in the air, flexing his toothpick arms, popping his jersey like Kobe, and screaming “Let’s Go!” to a delirious standing-room-only crowd at Avoda. When I say delirious, I don’t think I’m doing it justice. The place went absolutely bonkers. It was the loudest I’d ever seen (or heard) the camp as a whole, and I’ve seen a helicopter land in the middle of the athletic field (post-edit note: TWICE). I didn’t come out and say it like I did two years ago, but at that moment, I knew the game was ours.

As the lead started to balloon over 20 (with about ten minutes to go), it was starting to sink in. This was going to happen. I rushed over to J.D. to talk about potential MVP’s, but he’s the superstitious type and remembers that Rubin and I had this same conversation two years ago when J.D.’s team was on the verge of a title (Fun fact: Had we won that day, Paul Sockol would have been MVP). So I held off, choosing instead to check with some staff across the court to make sure they were good to go.

All summer, I talked about making the Avoda Tournament a grander spectacle than it had ever been. Part of that plan included cotton candy and carnival games, which Leon was happy to provide. Leon was also responsible for producing the first ever Avoda Superfan t-shirts, which were a massive success and will hopefully become a long-standing tradition. My biggest contribution — besides inviting the opponents, ordering the trophies, hiring the refs, and overseeing the execution of the entire tournament — was bringing some life to the fan section. For years, we had been stuck in a purgatory of sorts, chanting “We Are Avoda And No One Could Be Prouder,” “We Brush With Crest,” “We Are Dynamite,” and “A-V-O-D-A” over and over again like a broken record.

So after some meticulous YouTube research, I stumbled upon some videos of a Division 1 college basketball team (Utah State) with a small following but an insatiable and outrageous student section. Watching them belt out “I Believe” and “Winning Team, Losing Team” like that — with the staggered lines and repeated hand gestures and synchronized jumping — I knew what Avoda needed.

So the night before the tournament, in lieu of a physical evening activity, the staff and I called all the campers down to the basketball courts to practice some of the team cheers and songs so many of them had never learned. After twenty boring minutes of “Avoda’s Marching Song” and “Hey Bournedale,” I moved on to the new material. Much to my surprise, the campers picked up on the cheers right away and were doing them on cue in no time. I knew something special was brewing. And I had that feeling confirmed when Shif came up to me a few minutes later and asked that we specifically NOT do the “Winning Team, Losing Team” chant tomorrow, as it might show bad sportsmanship. I empathized with his concerns, but there was just no way we weren’t rubbing it in Crest’s face if we had the opportunity.

Coming out of a timeout, I make eye contact with Jason Hefter, who is congregating with a few other staff members. I give him the signal to run with it, but the wheels are already in motion. Punishments be damned, we were gonna enjoy this one. Suddenly, the whole crowd went silent, but it wasn’t long before Jason and his brother Brendan were shouting out, “Is that not a scoreboard!?” And on cue, the other campers, counselors, and alumni on the sideline answered right back, “Yes, that is a scoreboard!” Not to be outdone, Jason and Brendan shouted back…

“Is that not a 44!?”
“Yes, that is a 44!”
“Is that not a 18!?”
“Yes, that is a 18!”

Then, pointing towards the Avoda bench, Brendan and Jason proudly asked, “Is that not the winning team!?” And the onlookers were more than happy to answer, “Yes, that is the winning team!” And when the Hefters changed their focus to the Bauercrest bench and asked, “Is that not the losing team!?” the fans couldn’t wait to respond with “Yes, that is the losing team!” And then all hell broke loose when everyone in the stands started emphatically (and in unison) pointing back and forth between the two benches, signifying Avoda as the eventual winning team and Bauercrest as the eventual losing team.

It was the ultimate send-off to an all-time hated rival, a group that I wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire. My disdain for Bauercrest goes so far beyond the kind of distaste you’d have for a foil or a rival or even an archenemy. I can’t quite put it into words. All I can say is that beating Bauercrest and losing to Bauercrest are the two bookends of the spectrum when I rate how I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. They are the two extremes of good and bad feelings. The rivalry has always been the closest thing we have to Duke-UNC or Sox-Yankees. The realer we make it, the better it is to be a part of. Trash-talking, cheap shots, and mean-spirited chants are just part of the deal.

There’s only one word to describe how I felt as that chant was going on and Crest was scrambling to mount another comeback, and that word was perfection. We had rolled through all the competition, beaten Crest handily once, and were doing it to them again in a Championship game that we had blown in the past so many times before. We knew they weren’t coming back. Our team was on a different level. It was the best basketball I’d seen out of Adam Gray, Jake Alexander, Jonah Simon and Benny Cohen all summer. For Robbie, Fogel, Watman, and Gleason, it was just another series of clutch performances from guys who knew their strengths and played to them…constantly.

And in the midst of this annihilation on the court, here comes the Superfans to join in on the fun. Those chants, as unsportsmanlike and mean-spirited as some think they may be, were so perfect. It was such a fitting way to send Bauercrest packing. As we rode the clock out, I thought back to all the times they ran up the score on me, leaving their starters in too long, throwing alley-oops on my head, cheap-shotting my friends and talking shit like we were playing on Coney Island. Watching my team pound them into submission while the crowd literally explained to them how bad the beating was — it was a perfect moment.

There’s so much more to say about that day, and I plan on finishing, but for now this will have to do. If there are any readers out there that want to write something themselves or have specific requests for me, please let me know. I have plenty of ideas but nothing set in stone. Until then, day is done. Gone the sun. See you soon.

Oh yeah, we did this one too.

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One Response to Achieving Perfection

  1. MARY Ann French says:

    THAT IS BEAUTIFULLY WRITTEN .PROUD OF YOU JOSH!!Your love of Avoda is quite evident.

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