“There is God in everything. Even basketball.”
When Aaron Liberman said that, endless legs splayed out in front of him on a Sunday morning in late December, he didn’t know how true his words would be.
Just days later, the Valley Torah senior center was sent sprawling four times in a basketball game against league opponent New Community Jewish High School on Jan. 8. He sustained a punctured lung.
There was God in his rapid recovery.
Three weeks later, Liberman, a lanky 6-foot-9, returned to lead the Wolfpack, reeling from consecutive losses, to recapture the Westside League title and clinch the top seed in the California Interscholastic Federation Division 6AA basketball championship tournament.
Now Liberman and 22-4 Valley Torah, the No. 2 team in the national Jewish basketball team rankings, are playing for the title.
Averaging 18 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.8 blocks per game — and a 3.4 grade point average across his Judaic and secular studies — Liberman has earned interest from Ivy League and basketball schools alike, including Yale and Dartmouth, Boston College and Pepperdine.
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However, many collegiate basketball games would conflict with Liberman’s Shabbat observance.
“My religion is important to me, and so is basketball,” he said.
“He’ll have a decision to make,” said Lenard Liberman, Aaron’s father. “A lot happens between now and when he’ll start college. I think it’s about getting into the right program with the right coach.”
Lenard Liberman, a Stanford alumnus, would like his son to consider the Cardinal.
“They said, ‘Gain 50 pounds and we’ll talk to you,’ ” Lenard Liberman said of his own attempt to walk on to Stanford’s basketball team some two decades ago. “So Aaron’s living my dream in a lot of ways. He’s much better than I was as a basketball player, and he’s a great student. He can do great things with that.”
Aaron Liberman, 18, said he’s looking at universities’ academics before athletics.
“I’m using basketball to get into an academic school instead of a basketball-focused school,” said Liberman, who hopes to major in economics or political science, earn an MBA and join his father’s broadcasting business, Liberman Broadcasting Inc .
Valley Torah basketball coach Robert Icart also mentors Liberman on his Amateur Athletic Union team, BTI, and has a history of helping smart basketball players make their way to universities known for both academics and athletics.
Icart, who counts former Harvard point guard Drew Housman and current UCLA center Anthony Stover among the players he’s developed, appreciates Liberman’s unwillingness to compromise academics for athletics and praises Liberman’s ability.
“He’s an unbelievable shot blocker with incredible wingspan and timing,” Icart said. He added that Liberman must, however, further develop his ball-handling skills so he can “snatch rebounds, go coast-to-coast and finish,” as well as his outside shooting to be a more complete player at the collegiate level.
Although he’s a post player in high school, at the next level Liberman likely will transition to a combo forward with the potential to create match-up problems for opponents.
But his opponents will have to wait a year to face him on the court.
Liberman, along with many of his fellow Valley Torah seniors, will be going to Israel for a year. He hopes to continue learning about his faith while there, and work out with the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club.
Liberman’s mother, Sara, a former Israeli sprinter, supports her son’s athletic endeavors.
“I know Aaron’s always loved the game, and I’ve loved seeing him enjoy it and improve,” she said.
Liberman credits his upbringing with instilling in him the desire to succeed.
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“To be really good at basketball you have to have a drive,” he said. In August, he spent four to five hours at the gym nearly every day working on his game. “It takes commitment as well as physical ability.”
His work ethic is a distinguishing quality. His school day lasts from 7:45 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. He starts his homework before practice at 7:30 p.m. After practice, which ends around 10 or 11 p.m., he finishes his homework. He’s in bed by midnight or 1 a.m. Then he wakes up at 7 a.m. and his day begins again.
“Aaron’s the first at practice and the last to leave. He’s very disciplined. Nathaniel’s the same way,” said Icart, referring to Liberman’s younger brother, a sophomore guard at Valley Torah averaging 13.2 points and 2.4 steals per game.
Aaron Liberman is hoping his hard work and faith will win the Division 6AA championship against Bishop Diego March 5 at Mater Dei High in Santa Ana. (As of press time, the game was scheduled for 8:15 p.m. Saturday, but Valley Torah was requesting that it be rescheduled for Thursday, March 3 or later Saturday night.)
“I see God in everything in life. He has the power to do anything,” Liberman said.
Including bringing the first boys’ basketball title to Valley Torah.