With it’s sterling academic reputation, Hunter College High School on the Upper East Side ranks annually as one of the country’s top high schools, excelling in such brainiac extracurriculars as chess, debating and science competitions.
This year the school has game.
Its basketball team, undefeated at 15-0 after a 68-43 victory Monday at Norman Thomas High School, leads its public schools division, and the Hawks are ranked among the best city teams.
And this year, the team has a Jewish taam (flavor).
Three of the Hawks’ five starters are Jewish athletes, including 5-9 point guard Len Chenfeld, who is leading his team and the Public Schools Athletic League in scoring, at about 23 points a game.
A racially and ethnically mixed team enjoying rare success is also shattering stereotypes in the “city game,” which has become a majority minority sport in the last half century, dominated by African-American players using basketball as means to improve their lives, Hunter players say.
They notice surprise on opponents’ faces when they take the court. Afterwards, after an inevitable Hawks victory this season, they hear remarks like “You guys can actually play,” says shooting guard Cole Garson.
“I think I understand the reactions,” says Chenfeld, a senior who will probably play at an Ivy League or Patriot League university next year.
“This has never happened before,” says his father Cliff, who goes to most games. “This is their breakout year.”
The players’ parents are “very supportive” of their sons’ non-academic achievements, says center Matt Schoener.
“I’m a big proponent of sports,” says Marc Garson, Cole’s father, in the stands at Monday’s game. “There is a lot to learn … in basketball you learn to play as a team.”
The Hawks’ opponents are by consensus usually more skilled one-on-one, more athletic than the Hunter players. “We play smart basketball,” unselfishly passing the ball, Chenfeld says.
Introduced to basketball at age 3, he excelled at five sports before deciding to concentrate on hoops, is already his school’s career scoring leader, and is probably the only player from his school with a highlight film on YouTube.
The school, a windowless brick structure dubbed “The Brick Prison” by students on the school Web site, is funded by Hunter College, serves a “gifted” student body, and numbers novelist Cynthia Ozick and actress Ruby Dee among its illustrious graduates.
“It’s a nerd school … a totally academic school,” says Marc Garson.
The team’s three Jewish players, old friends, have all played on national Maccabi teams. Chenfeld will be part of the U.S. team in the Maccabiah Games in Israel this summer.
The heavily Jewish composition of the 2008-09 Hawks is “an interesting curiosity,” says Jeffrey Gurock, professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University and author of “Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports” (Indiana University Press, 2005). In New York City, “Jews haven’t played basketball [on high school teams] for generations as they now play the suburban sports like tennis."