The coach of arguably the most famous Jewish day school sports team in the country this year says he knew his players had the talent to end the 2011-12 basketball season in their Texas league’s title game.
But Chris Cole, who has guided the boys’ basketball team at the Robert M. Beren Academy in Houston for a decade, says he “never, never” anticipated that the Stars’ run to the Division 2A championship contest of the Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools (TAPPS) — a season punctuated by a schedule that originally included playoff games on Shabbat, a provisional forfeit of one game, and the threat of lawsuits — would become a national cause célèbre.
And he never foresaw that he, “a practicing Christian” working at a Modern Orthodox educational institution, would have to deliver the opening prayer before both the final pair of playoff games, which took place in the gym of a Catholic high school near Dallas.
For Cole, the whole season, which ended with his team’s 46-42 loss to Abilene Christian High School Saturday night, was a learning experience. As his entire tenure at the Beren Academy has been.
Now 36, he grew up in Houston, played basketball in junior college and took time off from his studies to work, joining the Beren staff upon finishing college 10 years ago. Raised Catholic and now a member of a non-denominational Christian church, he knew only one Jew — she was actually “half-Jewish,” he tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview — before he came to Beren. Now he talks easily about bentsching (the prayers said after a meal), an eruv (the symbolic boundary around a public domain that allows items to be carried on Shabbat) and kiddush Hashem (the sanctification of God’s name that comes from such actions as the school’s adherence to its religious principles).
“I ask a lot of questions,” he says, adding that he is now conversant in the basics of Jewish belief.
But nothing prepared him for last week. After The New York Times reported on TAPPS’s refusal to reschedule the Saturday semi-final game, thus forcing the Shabbat-observant Beren team to bow out, Cole and the school were inundated with interview requests. He had to bar the media from the team’s practice sessions. He went on ESPN and had to field reporters’ questions at press conferences, “the first ones we’ve ever had.”
When TAPPS at the last minute relented, scheduling the Stars’ semi-final game on Friday afternoon, several hours before the start of Shabbat, the team drove up to Dallas on Thursday, spent the night with members of the city’s Jewish community, then spent Shabbat in a hotel 15 minute from the game site, eating kosher food prepared by a local caterer and taking part in worship services that included a Torah scroll brought from Houston. “It was a Shabbaton,” Cole says.
The 1,700-seat gym was crowded with fans — including Seventh Day Adventists and members of other Christian groups — who largely cheered for the Beren team. Other fans around the world watched the game on a live stream on the Internet.
Tied at halftime, the Stars fell behind by 10 points early in the second half, and mounted a last-minute rally that fell short.
“Keep your heads up,” Cole told his players after the game. “Be proud.
“You should be proud of who you are and of what you believe in and what you stand for,” he told the Stars.
This week, following a boisterous reception on Sunday for the returning players, it was back to a “normal” schedule.
“I loved Beren Academy before all this stuff happened” last week, Cole says. “Afterwards, I love it even more.”