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Junior Jewish Olympics

Chicago gets ready for the Maccabi Youth Games.

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Ricky Michelon--the basketball-playing pride and joy of Highland Park High School--catches the ball, and works it to his right. Out of the corner of his eye he spies two opponents rushing him, so he fakes a pass and leaves his feet to let loose a long, soft jumper.

It slips through the hoop--all net--perfect. On his feet clapping is the coach, Gary Peckler. Despite Michelon's grace, Peckler knows his job is a tough one. A gruff and sometimes grumpy basketball coach from Sullivan High School in Rogers Park, Peckler has to slap Michelon and his teammates (most of them from pampered and privileged North Shore suburbs) into a well-running machine. And he has to do it by August 18.

For the Maccabi Youth Games are coming to Chicago. Every even-numbered year the youth games are held in a North American city; in the odd-numbered years the games alternate between Latin America and Europe. Sometimes known as the junior Jewish Olympics, the Maccabi Youth Games feature Jewish athletes ages 14 to 16; they are the junior version of the grownup Maccabi Games played every four years in Israel (the next games will be in 1989).

To get ready, the Jewish community throughout the Chicago metropolitan area is pulling out all the stops.

"We've got people coming from all over the world," says Mark Klaber, head of the Chicago delegation. "The games will run for one week [August 18 to 25]. We figure to have 3,000 competitors. There will be delegations from [about 60] cities all over the country, and countries all over the world"--Israel, Brazil, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Canada, Ireland, and Australia.

About 1,500 local families have volunteered to put up the visitors in their homes. There will be competitions at gyms and arenas all over town in basketball, martial arts, racquetball, soccer, swimming, softball, Ping-Pong, tennis, gymnastics, track and field, karate, wrestling, and volleyball (for information, call 675-2200).

This is one of the biggest events in the Jewish sporting world," says Klaber, a local businessman who grew up in Rogers Park, and now lives in Skokie. "A lot of great Jewish athletes got their start in the Maccabi games, like Mark Spitz and Mitch Gaylord, the Olympic gymnast."

The games are named for Judah Maccabee, the legendary Jewish warrior, who lived in the Middle East more than 100 years before the birth of Christ. At the time, Jerusalem was part of the larger Assyrian empire ruled by King Antiochus IV. The king, who viewed Judaism as a barbaric religion, outlawed its practice, going so far as to overrun the sacred Jewish temple in Jerusalem, stealing the golden candelabrum that held its holy lamp.

"In the dusty hill village of Modin, about six miles east of the coastal town of Lod, an old priest named Mattathias . . . killed a Jew who was about to obey the command of a royal official to sacrifice to Zeus god of heaven," wrote Chaim Potok in Wanderings, his history of the Jews. "Mattathias fled to the hills together with his five sons. Word spread quickly. . . . The sporadic unplanned attacks . . . now became a mass rebellion. . . . [When] Mattathias died . . . his son, Judah, took command of the rebel force."

Though outarmed, Maccabee's forces pushed the enemy soldiers out of Jerusalem, and retook the sacred temple. Their victory spawned Hanukkah, the winter-time festival of lights that celebrates, among other things, religious freedom, Jewish nationalism, and Maccabee's heroics, which disprove the stereotype of Jews as timid, scholarly creatures.

The troops of Judah--he had been nicknamed Maccabeus, possibly meaning the hammer--may have used the hollow ends of their metal spear shafts for a candelabrum at first, the fresh pure oil poured into the hollows and left to burn as a makeshift eternal light until the new golden candelabrum was completed," Potok wrote. "The celebration continued for eight days and was made into an annual observance [Hanukkah]--the first festival not sanctioned by Biblical law."

That's a tough act to follow, and none of the young Maccabian athletes competing in Chicago will be asked to fight a war. The first Maccabi Games were held in 1932, in Tel Aviv with delegations from 23 countries. The first Maccabi Youth Games were in 1982. The [North American] Maccabi Youth Games are held every two years, and our major goal is to get these kids to Israel," says Peckler--if sufficient funds are raised, all the competitors visit Israel after the games. "Beyond that, we want to win. We want to be good hosts. But we're not going to roll over." Peckler smiles as he talks, but obviously he's a serious competitor. He grew up on the northwest side, and played basketball and baseball at Von Steuben High School. In the 1960s, he began teaching gym and coaching basketball at Austin High School, a mostly black school on the west side. He took over the same jobs at Sullivan High School a few years ago.

"I was at Austin for 12 years, 7 years as varsity coach, and it was a different game," says Peckler. "Today, kids are more sophisticated. They have too many other things to do; you've got girls and cars competing with you.

"At Austin, I never had any trouble getting a team together. We had 300 guys come for a tryout. At Sullivan, it's a different clientele. We get 20 to 25 guys for a tryout, and have trouble getting a full squad of 12."

The Maccabi team, however, wasn't that hard to recruit. Word of the tryouts was spread through synagogues, Jewish community centers, and high schools. The first tryout drew over 60 participants.

"It was like any tryout," says Peckler. "We worked on shooting, rebounding, basic skills. And we got it down to 30, 20,15, and now 12 kids."

And how do you know that all of the kids are Jewish? Peckler and Klaber are asked.

"We just assume that no one would cheat," says Klaber. "I mean, what are we gonna do, pull down their pants?"

The current squad reflects the economic and residential evolution of Chicago's Jewish community. The legendary Jewish athletes of old--men like Barney Ross, the boxer, Sid Luckman, the quarterback, and even Irv Kupcinet, once an all-America football player--grew up poor in rough-and-tumble neighborhoods. Sports, to them, was a stepping-stone from the ghetto, much as it is for black kids today.

The Maccabi squad, however, features only two kids from Chicago, and neither attends a public school.

"We do really well out of Highland Park, since so many of the kids up there are Jewish, and they have a great basketball program," says Peckler. "These kids [the Maccabians] are well coached and they play hard. But, obviously, to the kids from Austin, basketball plays a greater role in their lives. I mean, those kids at Austin, you tell them 'Run through the wall' and they'll run through the wall for you. They do what you say.

"I had some great teams at Austin. I had Mark Aguirre for two years before he transferred to Westinghouse Prep. He was the greatest player I ever coached. The next greatest was Michael Johnson, who plays with the Globetrotters. Well, actually, he plays for the Washington Generals, the team that plays against the Trotters and always has to lose. Michael was a great player. His brother Eddie went to Westinghouse and now plays in the pros for the Sacramento Kings."

Peckler has coached the last two Maccabi youth basketball teams. In 1986, his club played well, but lost to a taller team from Los Angeles (which, some observers suspected, may have featured players older than 16). Perhaps his greatest stars of recent years were Jordan Engerman (now Peckler's assistant coach) from Mather High, Igal Litovsky, a sharp-shooting guard out of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, and Louis Wool, who starred at Evanston Township High School.

At the moment, it's difficult to judge how this year's team will fare. They've had only two practices, and their sole scrimmage, as of this writing, was an entertaining but sloppy exhibition against the Demons, a team of 13- and 14-year-olds, from a youth league near Cabrini-Green.

That game took place at the court of the Jewish Community Center in West Rogers Park, where the Demons, younger and smaller, jumped to an early lead by virtue of the fact that they were better dribblers.

Midway through the second quarter, however, the Maccabians discovered their major advantage: the trap. That means, two Maccabian players rushed the Demon ball handler as he crossed the half-court line. In the face of the trap, the Demon dribblers panicked again and again, often losing control of the ball.

The Maccabians took their first lead at 4:19 of the second quarter, on a tip-in by Rich Goldberg, their six-foot-seven string bean center from Highland Park. Actually, if the Maccabians have a potential savior, it's Goldberg. He weighs only 185, Peckler says, but that's up 20 pounds from last year, and he's bound to gain more, since he's working hard with weights.

"I think Goldberg's got the potential to play major college ball," Peckler says.

By the third quarter, the game was all but over, as two teenage blonds--one of them Ricky Michelon's girlfriend--slipped into the gym. For Michelon, her presence seemed inspirational. He ran harder, demanded the ball, and hit a steady stream of turnaround jump shots, some from as far as 20 feet out. At a break, he smiled to his mother (who beamed) and flashed a wink to his sweetheart.

The final score was 71-56. Demon coach Vince Carter and Peckler agreed to an eight-minute second game, which resulted in an 8-8 tie. So they decided on a one-minute overtime, which ended when a Demon player, his team down by one, launched a prayer from the half-court line with one second remaining. Miraculously, the shot fell in. The Demons were ecstatic, pouring onto the court to pound the back of the game-saving hero.

Later Peckler would say his team found its form, and is almost ready for tournament play.

But they beat you, someone told him.

"Yeah, but that was only in the one-minute overtime," Peckler answered.

Yeah, but the Demons are younger and smaller.

"Well, they've been playing together for months, and this was only our second practice," said Peckler, always the competitor. "Just imagine how good we'll be when the games begin in a few weeks."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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