To college basketball fans, the recent hardwood battles between the University of Tennessee and the University of Memphis has been the stuff of legend. Most notably, the 2008 game pitted #2 Tennessee against #1 Memphis, in which the Volunteers snapped the Tigers 47-game home winning streak on the way to their own #1 ranking. A battle royal between two tradition rich programs led by the larger than life personalities of head coaches Bruce Pearl and John Calipari, the Volunteers and Tigers have put together some of the most memorable games in recent college basketball history.
However, with the recent departure of Calipari to the University of Kentucky, many in the college basketball world believe that the match-up has lost much of its luster. This year, a loaded Tennessee squad faces off against rookie Memphis head coach Josh Pastner, whose young team has been largely untested other than an early season match up against #1 Kansas. Yet what the casual fan may fail to realize is that the Tennessee vs. Memphis match-up has taken on an entirely new dynamic that transcends the game itself; both teams’ coaches are of the Jewish faith.
No longer will the match-up be just a simple game of basketball, but rather a testament to how far American culture has progressed in the last quarter century.
Jews in the game of basketball have had remarkable (if often unrecognized) success. Although Jews make up less than 2% of America’s population, almost a third of NBA franchise owners (including Mark Cuban and Micky Arison) are Jewish. The greatest coach in the history of the game, Red Auerbach, along with the NBA’s long time commissioner, David Stern, are both Jews. Nevertheless, for all the success that Jews have had on the professional levels of the game, that success has not been as nearly pronounced in the college level. Today, only 10 of some 341 Division I head coaches are of the Jewish faith. The numbers amongst the ranks of assistants are equally comparable.
That is what makes Josh Pastner’s ascendancy into the college basketball realm even more significant. Pastner, at the ripe age of 32, has been seen as ray of hope not only for the Memphis basketball program, but for the Jewish population and the coaching profession as a whole. Not only is Josh one of the youngest coaches on the Division I level, but he is by far the youngest head coach of a major program in recent history. He joins Bruce Pearl and Virginia Tech’s Seth Greenberg, as only the 3rd Jewish head coach of a major college basketball team. Through tremendous work ethic, an exceedingly charming personality, and an unyielding passion for the game, he has been able to tread new ground in an archaic profession.
Pastner not only carries the flag of his faith, but that of his generation too.
More significant is the fact that the two major universities in Tennessee, a state known for its long history of anti-semitism and racist undertones, have Jews leading their basketball teams. No longer will the Volunteers and Tigers simply battle for bragging rights; they will silently become witness to a progress that many thought unimaginable only a few decades ago. Pastner and Pearl are proof that one’s religion, or race for that matter, makes no difference in the success one is capable of achieving. If anything, Pastner himself proves that the teachings he has learned from his religion; hard work, dedication, loyalty and passion, are the foundations for what is needed to succeed in the coaching profession at a young age.
The battle for the Volunteer state will, for the foreseeable future, have far more meaning to it than a simple basketball game. It will evidence that even in a world as competitive as sports, people have begun to put aside their differences in the pursuit of a common success.
Hardwood glory will never have meant so much to so many, and for that we should all be grateful.