Underplayed religion

fairfaxhigh_dec2006From a basketball and sports perspective, this lengthy profile in The Los Angeles Times headlined “Jewish coach, black players forged lasting bond” is a model for excellence in sports journalism. Unfortunately, the obvious religious element of the story — which the editors decided for one reason or another deserved top billing — gets little more than a few mentions in the article which runs close to 2,400 words.

The story is about an 86-year-old retired Jewish high school basketball coach Marty Biegel who built winning teams of primarily black players amidst times of racial conflict in Los Angeles. As I was reading the article, I kept hoping that the influence of Biegel’s faith would be discussed, but unfortunately, the issue was never addressed in any depth:

Much of Los Angeles fretted when blacks began appearing in white schools during the 1970s. Not Biegel.

He celebrated the new black athletes in his gym — players who could go to the basket with either hand and leap high above the rim. An orthodox Jew, he’d look heavenward and murmur a prayer.

“We’re winners!” he would crow. “We can take anybody!”

I appreciated the way the article dealt with race in a matter-of-fact manner. No attempts were made to sugar-coat or idealize the racial wrongs, problems and challenges Los Angeles has faced over the years. And the racial challenges have not been limited to white v. black. Hispanics, Koreans, Chinese, Japanese and any number of other ethnic groups have faced various social and legal challenges in California over the decades.

Unfortunately, Biegel’s status as an orthodox Jew doesn’t get mentioned much more than the following paragraph:

Born in 1922 on New York’s Lower East Side, Biegel was the oldest of four children. He was a good student and a free spirit. Sports were his passion. But his father wanted him to become a rabbi. To his parents’ dismay, he spent hours in a pool hall, rubbing shoulders with wiseguys.

Religion ghosts persist throughout the article. See the following section of the article:

Biegel’s first black recruit was Chris Parker, whom he met at the Jewish Community Center. During a two-hour pitch in the boy’s kitchen, the coach pleaded with him to choose Fairfax.

“My mom said: ‘Wow, that little guy can talk!’ ” Parker recalled. “He told me the most important thing was that I had to become a good person. And that he, Marty Biegel, would guarantee this.”

Parker, who never knew his dad, was dumbfounded.

“How could you possibly deny this guy?” said Parker, now 53, and an actor. “He’s so small you could break him in half! But he locked me in with a deep soul look. He made me believe.”

A deep soul look that made him believe? Also, see this line about last second game-winning shots Biegel’s team were known hit:

He also challenged them to perform miracles.

The article appropriately quotes basketball-coaching legend John Wooden, who is known to tell his players to read good books, particularly the Bible. Beyond the wonderfully written and moving scene in the article about Biegel’s players attending his wife’s funeral, did he have any religious influence on his players?

I am of the opinion that Biegel’s religion should have been addressed more directly in this article. Fortunately the article did not ignore it entirely otherwise it probably would never would have made it onto our radar.

Image of Fairfax High School in Los Angeles, Calif., used under a Wikimedia Commons license.

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