Yeshiva's Ryan Turell leads college basketball in scoring

They lined up for blocks along Amsterdam Avenue in December, standing in the cold for two hours, hoping to sneak into the modest Max Ste...


They lined up for blocks along Amsterdam Avenue in December, standing in the cold for two hours, hoping to sneak into the modest Max Stern Athletic Center to catch a glimpse of the squad at New York’s hottest college basketball.

Inside, the Yeshiva men’s basketball team, led by Ryan Turell, the nation’s leading scorer with his bouncy blonde curls and soft, feathery touch, was about to give a tip.

Around 500 people were turned away that night, unable to fit into the 1,000-seat gymnasium which 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). The turnout was similar for their next home game, against the Merchant Marine Academy on February 1, when Turell dropped 31 points to become Yeshiva’s career leading scorer – with Knicks president Leon Rose in the seats to watch.

Others were unable to enter, and some of them looked out a window as fans inside, many wearing yarmulkes, the traditional Jewish headgear, stood up and chanted ” MVP” for their hero.

“I came to Yeshiva from London and I knew nothing about basketball,” said sophomore and fan Michael Smolowitz. “Once I got here, I was bombarded with it. It is quite important.

College basketball has been in crisis for decades in the New York area, a place that treasured spectacle and passion for the college game. But at Yeshiva, a Jewish college tucked away in Washington Heights — not much more than a long 3 dot from the rumbling traffic of the Cross Bronx Freeway — the game is booming.

The Maccabees are ranked sixth in the nation, led by a Division III superstar who turned down offers from Division I schools so he could be a “Jewish hero” in the tiny Yeshiva, where the head coach works full-time as a lawyer, the weight room is smaller than at many high schools, and the workout table pales in comparison to what student-athletes are served at Duke and Michigan.

But at Yeshiva, with a student body of around 4,000 students, Turell fulfilled his quest to be a hero. He is known there and around the world. He can barely walk across campus without several admirers greeting him and wishing him well. Elliot Steinmetz, Yeshiva’s head coach and former player, says he receives emails from around the world expressing his support and admiration for the team, which has become something of a beacon of Jewish sporting pride.

“I received an email this morning from someone in Australia asking where they could buy a YU jersey,” Steinmetz said. “He wanted to wear it on the streets of Sydney. I am contacted by Jews in Alaska, England, South America. Pretty much everywhere.

Yeshiva owes much of its success to Turell, the team’s transcendent star. On a recent morning, a group of students spotted him as he strolled around campus from his nearby apartment along Amsterdam Avenue. As word spread, they walked out of a local pizzeria, pointing their phone cameras at him, shaking his hand and asking about his game that night.

A nimble 6-foot-6 senior with lofty professional and spiritual aspirations, Turell is averaging 28.1 points per game, the most of any player in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s three divisions, 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 “useless”, he said.

Turell has scored at least 30 points six times this season and topped 40 twice, including a record-breaking 51-point performance against Manhattanville in November.

“I don’t care who it is against, if you drop 50 on somebody, that’s saying something,” said Yeshiva assistant coach and former NBA forward for the Knicks and Bulls Michael Sweetney. “But the best part was, we really needed it that night.

As the season races towards the tournament, Turell, who turned 22 on February 3, is the leading contender for Division III Player of the Year. It’s a nice feeling, sure, but Turell shrugs it off. All that matters to the player some have dubbed the Jewish Larry Bird is a chance to make the playoffs.

“We haven’t had the chance before,” Turell said. “For a lot of people, it was a never-ending story.”

Division III tournaments for the past two years have been canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 tournament was particularly heartbreaking for the Macs as it ended after reaching the round of 16 and a much-anticipated clash against No. 3 Randolph-Macon. Yeshiva had won 29 straight games and aspired to prove himself against one of his division’s elite programs.

The following year it happened again, and all the Maccabees had to console themselves with was a 7-0 record and a newly coined saying: “We picked a bad time to be good”, like Gabriel Leifer, the rugged co-captain and the rock of the team, put it on. This year’s tournament appears to be on track, but the recent coronavirus surge has left a tinge of uncertainty.

“At first you’re so disappointed,” Leifer said, “but then you see the hospitalization rates and realize it’s a good thing we didn’t put 1,000 people in a gym. But now, hopefully, it’s finally time for us and Ryan to show what we’ve got.

Turell grew up in Sherman Oaks, California, near Los Angeles, the son of Brad Turell, a former guard at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Ryan played basketball at both Valley Torah, a Jewish school, and Earl Watson Elite, one of the AAU’s top teams. He had offers to play in Division I and was tempted, but ultimately felt it would be more genuine to embrace his faith. Additionally, he knew about Yeshiva because his older brother, Jack, played there, and he believed in Steinmetz and everything the coach promised.

“I went to Jewish schools all my life, I grew up religious, I’m kosher,” Turell said. “I was like, ‘What are we doing here? I want to go to Yeshiva.’ My parents were a bit shocked because my dream was to play in Division I. But I told them, “I want to be a Jewish hero.”

Turell now plays with a yarmulke atop her blonde mane, but hasn’t always done so. He didn’t wear one to AAU games or when he played in fierce summer pickup games in Los Angeles alongside college – and occasional – NBA players. He was uncomfortable with the attention, but he now regrets that choice and still wears it, emphasizing his pride in his Judaism.

“Just to show that Jews can hang on,” he said with a smile, “that we can still play basketball.”

Sometimes in pick-up matches, he’ll hear light-hearted comments, such as when he tags an opposing player, then hears his teammate’s comment, “He’s blasting you with a yarmulke.”

These amuse him. But there may be an uglier side. Turell said he heard anti-Semitic slurs, like “Jew boy,” on the field in high school and college, including at a game this season. He did not identify the team or what was said, because the Maccabees chose to settle that score on the pitch.

Turell told Steinmetz during a timeout, and the coach was ready to kick the Maccabees off the pitch in protest. But Turell, insisting the insults only fuel his desire to win, said it was better to beat the team, which the Maccabees did. Steinmetz, who said such incidents are rare, was proud of the reaction from the entire team. The school is also proud.

“They’re not just playing for a university,” Yeshiva President Ari Berman said on the court after a recent win. “They play for a people.”

But as Yeshiva continues to win, some pundits wonder if his record is inflated by playing in the Skyline conference, which isn’t Division III’s most hotly contested. When the Maccabees faced the Illinois Wesleyan in December, the game was seen as a litmus test of Yeshiva’s position. Unprecedented hype buzzed in Division III basketball. Fans lined up for hours to get in.

Illinois Wesleyan won, 73-59, ending 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 always gets his points,” Rose said. “Yeshiva is legitimate. I’ve seen all the rhetoric about their schedule strength. I don’t buy it. There is no doubt that they can compete at the highest level.

For Turell, the top tier could also mean a professional career. He hopes to play in the NBA and eventually in Israel. NBA teams have sent scouts to Yeshiva games, and Turell trains diligently from the NBA 3-point line to increase his chances – he shoots until he makes at least 300 shots a day. .

It was on a shot from such a distance on Tuesday that Turell broke Yeshiva’s career record for most runs scored (he now has 1,906). After the game, Steinmetz messaged the young hero to tell him he was proud of him. Turell texted back.

“Everything you said we would do has come true,” Turell wrote. “Now let’s win a national championship.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: Yeshiva's Ryan Turell leads college basketball in scoring
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