It was obvious to anyone standing in the gym at Harriton High School in suburban Philadelphia on Sept. 10: No. 11 was one to watch.
Sneakers squeaked sharply on the shiny floors as two groups of young basketball players ran drills and scrimmaged for parents, coaches and reporters. At 5-foot-11, No. 11 was taller than most of the other girls, but it wasn’t just her height that distinguished her. Abby Meyers moved with a surefootedness that belied her age, a confidence in her body’s ability to do what was needed.
On the sidelines, her mother, Valerie Meyers, watched calmly as her daughter dashed and leapt. She was used to it.
“I have three daughters; Abby is a twin,” she said. “They never sat still.”
The sisters were all starters for the Walt Whitman High School basketball team in Bethesda, taking it to a state championship win for the first time in more than two decades. In the championship game, Abby scored 21 points, including four 3-pointers.
Her talent has not gone unnoticed. Several Division I schools recruited her, and then she narrowed it down to Stanford University and Princeton University. Ultimately, she chose Princeton.
“She just committed a couple months ago,” Meyers said. “It was a hard decision.”
Now, mother and daughter had driven from their Potomac home to suburban Philadelphia so that Abby could try out for the 20th World Maccabiah Games, which will be held in Israel from July 4 to 18 next year.
“Abby has never been out of the country,” Meyers said. “To go to Israel would be wonderful.”
Abby, a sheen of sweat on her dewy face, agreed: “I’ve never been to Israel,” she said. “[It would be] a great experience to embrace my Judaism and learn more about it because there’s always more to learn about it, and also get to play the sport I love, basketball, and being able to play against great competition worldwide.”
That was also the hope of the 70 or so teenage boys who crowded into the gym after the girls’ tryouts finished. This was the second set of tryouts for the boys that day and, before they started playing, longtime Maccabiah Games coach Brian Schiff wanted them to understand the stakes.
“This is something you really want to do,” he said, noting that the Maccabiah Games is the third-largest sporting event in the world for athlete participation. “But it’s not just a basketball thing.”
Schiff emphasized the importance of “being Jewish and representing your country in a different country. … People think it’s maybe a bunch of religious kids running around in their tallises. We know that’s not what it is.”
For those applicants who might worry about missing out on some summer fun at home, Schiff offered the story of one competitor who, as a result of his success at the games, now plays basketball in Israel professionally.
“Perspective is something you don’t have when you’re 16, 17, 18 years old,” he said, assuring the boys that whatever they might sacrifice would be worth it. “If you don’t want to go, there’s someone else who will gladly go in your spot. You’re not doing us a favor. We’re doing you a favor.”
After the pep talk, the boys divided into two groups and performed line drills, weave drills and other tests of skill and athleticism. The tryouts would continue throughout the weekend.
David Sussman watched son Max, 17, from the sidelines. They’d come to Lower Merion from Westport, Conn., so Max could try out.
“He played for Stamford [Conn.] in the Maccabi regional games and was approached by one of the recruiters to come try out [for this], and he was honored by that,” Sussman said. “He’s been playing for a very long time. He plays for his high school and he loves it. He’s always on the court. But this is a team he really wants to make, to have that experience. He’s very connected to Israel, and for him [making this team] would be tremendous.”
Sussman said the whole family will go to Israel if Max makes the team.
“But we understand the competition is really, really tough,” he said. “There are a ton of great players out there.”
There were 175 hopefuls vying for 16 available slots. Those who do make it will stay in a hotel in Haifa, and participate in the mandatory Israel Connect program, which takes participants on tours of Israel and hosts cultural events and parties as well. Part of the week will include a b’nai mitzvah ceremony conducted by the team rabbi.
As Schiff reminded the kids, the connections they’d make through participating in the games would prove invaluable and long-lasting. They’d become part of the Maccabi USA family.
“There’s nothing any of us won’t do for any of you. It’s not just about making a basketball team. We want the best for everybody here.”
Liz Spikol is a staff writer for the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.