One could argue that last year’s Jewish story of the year was Cornell’s run in the NCAA tournament. What a run they had to the Sweet 16. Not only were they fun to watch and a shock to the world, but the team had 3 Jewish ball players. Finally we were able to get a hold of one. Thank you to Jon Jaques for spending some time with us. Really nice guy and we hope to hear from him again around tournament time.
1) Tell us a little bit about yourself?
I’m 22 years old, a recent graduate of Cornell, and playing basketball professionally in Israel this season for Ironi Ashkelon. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, where I grew up in a Jewish household (went to Hebrew school, was bar-mitzvahd…the whole deal). Aside from playing basketball, I’m a huge sports nut in general. Love basketball, baseball, football, but I’ll watch/get into pretty much anything (except NASCAR). I’m interested in a career in sports journalism after I’m done playing, so I’m doing my best to continue writing while I’m overseas. I’m contributing a college basketball blog for Slamonline.com and writing my own diary-type blog about my experience in Israel
2) Was basketball always your best sport?
I think basketball has always been my favorite sport, but for a while I’d say I was a better baseball player. When I was maybe 10-15 years old, I was huge for my age and, as a pitcher, could throw the ball harder than anyone and hit pretty decently too. In California, baseball is almost a year-round sport, so every year I’d end up dropping baseball for a handful of months to focus on basketball (which I enjoyed more anyway). Eventually in my junior year of high school, it became clear that I couldn’t excel in one sport without dropping the other, so I figured I might as well focus on the one I enjoyed more.
3) When did you know you could play in college?
I probably knew I could play college basketball right before my junior season in high school. I had spent my sophomore year on the varsity basketball team, and even though I didn’t play much, I was able to land on a decent club team for the summer. I played pretty well the summer between my sophomore and junior seasons, and when I came back to school, my high school coach told me my play had caught the attention of some college coaches and, if I improved and kept working hard during the upcoming season, I would have a legitimate chance to play college basketball. My goal was always to become a Division I basketball player, and hearing my coach say that motivated me even more to make that dream a reality.
4) What was it like during Cornell’s run last year?
Obviously last year’s run to the Sweet 16 was an experience I’ll never forget. It will probably end up being one of the greatest times of my life, not just because I was part of Cornell’s historic achievements on the court, but because I did it with my best friends. I know the camaraderie and chemistry on our team was more of a reason for our success than anything else, and that’s what will make last March extremely memorable. The atmosphere on campus was electric during our run to the Sweet 16 as well…we turned Cornell into a basketball school, which was fun to see.
5) What was the coolest part about the tournament that people might not know about?
Definitely the police-escorts the NCAA provided our team bus during our weekend in Jacksonville. We would be staying a half hour drive away from the arena or practice gym, but with 4 motor cops flanking our bus, we would arrive at our destination in 10 minutes max. Our whole team really got a kick out of that.
6) Did you feel that Cornell reached its potential last year?
Yes and no. Before the season began, as a veteran team that had been to the tournament the previous two seasons and not won a game yet, we decided our goal should be to make the Sweet 16. We honestly felt we had the talent to do something special and historic. Obviously we peeked at the perfect time of year, won our first two tournament games, accomplished our pre-season goal, and entered our game v Kentucky as an unbelievably confident team. Then we had our worst shooting game of the season. Now, 99% of the credit belongs to Kentucky for playing the most smothering defense I had ever seen in person, but weeks later after our disappointment went away, our entire team was frustrated by what could have been. So I think we had an unbelievably successful season, but with the way we were playing in March, we all thought there was the potential for more.
7) How are you enjoying your Israeli experience?
Israel has been really fun so far. I’m still getting adjusted to how different the culture and the people are here from home. For example, everything is closed on Friday afternoons through Saturday nights for Shabbat, so I have to plan around that. But as a Jewish-American, it definitely feels special, and I feel honored, to be able to live here. It’s kind of allowed me to reconnect with Judaism. I’ve enjoyed site-seeing as well (already been the Western Wall twice, once in the week preceding Yom Kippur). I still have plenty more to see though.
8) Are you making Aliyah? Do you plan on playing basketball in Israel for a while?
Yes, I’m making Aliyah. I’m kind of taking my career over here in Israel one year at a time. I don’t see this as a long-term career though…I want to do this as long as I’m still having fun or until I have some other non-basketball opportunities back home. When I was given the chance to come to Israel through basketball, it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime experience that I’d be crazy to pass up. But I don’t see myself as a guy who plays basketball in Europe for years and years.
9) Are there any other young Jewish basketball players to watch out for?
There are two more Jewish players still at Cornell. Chris Wroblewski is a Junior and the only remaining starter from the Sweet 16 team and he’s got my vote for preseason Ivy League POY. And sophomore Eitan Chemerinski is a young but extremely talented/versatile post player. Those are probably the two best young Jewish basketball players I know.
10) Whats your favorite restaurant in Israel so far?
I like any restaurant that serves Shawarma. It’s not a very healthy option, but I can’t get enough of the stuff. Aroma Café is very nice also. It’s the Israeli equivalent of Starbucks… I know they have a few in New York City, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually caught on even more in the States.
Thanks again to Jon.
And Let Us Say…Amen.