It's March Madness and all eyes are on the Stanford Cardinals. Ranked No. 1 in the nation, the near-perfect team enters this weekend's Pac 10 Tournament as the Pac 10 regular season champions and will enter next week's NCAA Tournament as a No. 1 seed. Key to the Cardinal's success is reserve guard/forward Dan Grunfeld. Grunfeld, who averages 11.7 minutes a game, heads into the tournament with a levelheaded perspective on his team's near-perfect season.
"We've had success this year, but it's because of our hard work. We don't lose sight of what's gotten us to this point. We're still focused and we still have a lot more to achieve," Grunfeld said. Finishing the season with an outstanding 26-1 record, the Cardinals hope to continue their winning streak in the weeks of tournament play ahead.
Grunfeld, who scored a career-high 21 points against Southern Utah in December, has come into his own in his second year of play.
"This year I'm more comfortable with the offense and I've got a better feel for all of the guys," said the 6-foot-6, 210-pound sophomore. "I feel like I'm more a part of it."
Grunfeld comes from a basketball family. His paternal grandfather spent the Holocaust in a Romanian work camp; his paternal grandmother hid in a basement with false papers. They immigrated to the United States in the 1960s, where their son, Ernie, learned to play basketball. Ernie earned a basketball scholarship to Tennessee and, after college, played for the Milwaukee Bucks, the Kansas City Kings and the New York Knicks. He later became the general manager of the Knicks, then the Bucks, and today is the president of basketball operations for the Washington Wizards.
"People talk about my dad and his career a lot," said Grunfeld, 20. "But it's just who I am and where I come from. It's no added pressure."
Grunfeld is also unfazed by the added pressure of being a Stanford student-athlete. With a great deal of time dedicated to practice, weight training and traveling, Grunfeld's learned to juggle athletics and academics.
"Going to college at any school in the country you've got to do your work. As an athlete, you've got to do your work and you've got to go to practice. It's not an impossible thing to do, you just have to find the balance that works best for you."
Grunfeld learned to balance his basketball and his Judaism early on. He gets a smile on his face as he recalls his after-school regiment.
"My attendance at Hebrew school probably wasn't as perfect as some other kids'," said Grunfeld, who was bar mitzvahed. "I remember going to Hebrew school in my uniform and going straight to basketball games. I only get asked about my Judaism occasionally, but I don't forget those times in Hebrew school, or who I am."
Stanford plays No. 8 Washington State University in the first round of the 2004 Pac-10 Men's Tournament on March 11 at 12:20 p.m.
Sports a Family Affair for Israeli Bruin
Ortal Oren hopes to be the first Israeli to play in the WNBA, but for now she's happy being the only Israeli on the UCLA women's basketball team.
"I love being a Bruin," said the sophomore guard.
Oren lead Kiriat-Sharet High School to back-to-back Israeli championship titles her junior and senior years and was named MVP of both title games. The heavily recruited Oren chose UCLA for its strong basketball program, challenging academics, sunny weather and proximity to her uncle in Orange County.
"I also enjoy being around such diverse people. I thought coming from a different country would make me different, but everyone at UCLA has a different background and ethnicity," said Oren, who picked jersey number 00 because it's also spells out her initials.
Oren was a key force off the Bruin bench this season, averaging 9.2 minutes per game.
"I have more confidence this year and have a bigger role on the team," said Oren, who played for the Israeli Junior National Team this summer. "I'm having a better year overall. Last year I had to adjust to the language, classes and different basketball play, but this year it's much easier. I'm doing well in school, and I'm more comfortable with the team," said Oren who rooms in the dorms with teammates Nikki Blue and Emma Tautolo.
Oren's parents are both well-known Israeli athletes. Her father, Ronen, was the director of the Maccabi Tel Aviv Basketball Academy and her mother, Ronit Gazit, was a competitive high jumper.
"I miss my family and friends, but I don't miss being in Israel because I'm having so much fun here," said Oren who left four younger brothers and a sister back in Rishon-Lezion. "The girls on the team are like sisters to me."
Oren and the UCLA Bruins finished the regular season 16-11 overall and 11-7 in conference. They lost to Stanford in the semifinals of the Pac-10 Tournament on March 7 in San Jose.
YULA Takes Pride in Its Panthers
YULA Panthers head coach Edward Gelb has led his team to roaring success over the past 13 years. Under his guidance, the team has won seven Liberty League Championships in 10 years, advanced to the quarterfinals several times and recently clocked in its 200th victory.
"I first started coaching at YULA because I wanted kids who were committed to getting a Jewish education to have the option to play basketball at the same competitive level as kids who were attending other schools," said Gelb. "I didn't want them to feel they're missing out just because they're Jewish."
With the JV and varsity teams having 12-13 players each, just getting on the YULA team has become competitive. Every year 40-50 freshmen try out in hopes of filling the few spots left open by exiting seniors.
"Boys basketball is our most popular sport, it's the one the students follow most closely," said YULA Athletic Director Joel Fisher.
While other high school teams practice daily, YULA practices three times a week. The students attend school from 7:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. -- many take advanced Talmud classes from 7:30-9:30 p.m. twice a week -- and attend Sunday school.
"The key to our success is concentration," Gelb said. "We don't practice as much as other teams, so the kids really have to focus and concentrate when we do. Then they bring that concentration to the game. But still, practice time is our biggest challenge."
Fisher would say Gelb and his team face an even greater challenge.
"The most impressive thing about Ed's coaching at YULA is that he's had all this success without a gym," Fisher said. With no on-site gymnasium, the YULA Panthers practice at the Westside JCC or outside on playground courts.
This year, the Panthers beat Calvary Chapel Murietta 58-43 in the first round of playoffs. They went on to lose a tough game (58-53) to Santa Clara in the round of 16.
"Our basketball team has been extremely successful over the years, and that's greatly due to Ed's tremendous time, effort and dedication to the program," Fisher said.