In January, Yeshiva University’s basketball coach Jonathan Halpert published his memoirs, “Are You Still Coaching?” In February, the answer is “no,” with Halpert fired after 42 years and more than 400 victories (seventh most in the history of New York men’s basketball).
An official statement by YU didn’t say Halpert was fired, only that he “will conclude his service” after Yeshiva’s final game (Feb. 22), but the coach emailed friends that this was just “the corporate way of telling me that I have been fired.” Halpert said the school never told him why.
Since 1972 Halpert has commanded Yeshiva’s sidelines and the respect of the city’s basketball mavens. This week, all he has left is that respect, with the coach reporting more than 350 emails from former players, opposing coaches, referees and the Yeshiva community, where the consensus reaction was “shocked.”
Halpert admitted to sadness, disappointment. “It rips your heart out,” he told The Jewish Week Tuesday. “To end this way makes no sense. Everyone asks me, why? As if the onus is on me to explain. It’s not fair. I have no basis even for speculation.”
YU President Richard Joel issued a statement praising “Dr. Halpert’s caring commitment, as both mentor and coach, to his players and the YU community has made a difference for more than four decades. His legacy and lasting contribution to the university will be remembered each time our student athletes step onto the court that carries his name.” Just two years ago, YU honored Halpert, who has a doctorate in special education, by adding his “signature” to the home court at Yeshiva’s Max Stern Athletic Center on West 185th Street.
Looking to reconcile Joel’s praise and Halpert’s pain, Joel was given the chance to elaborate, but he told The Jewish Week that he wouldn’t comment further. Requests for comment from officials in athletic department were referred to an official spokesman who wouldn’t comment on personnel issues.
Halpert said, “I got called to [Joel’s] office, last May. We’re not best friends but we had a nice relationship. He says, ‘I’ll let you coach this year (2013-14) but after that I want you to retire.’ I asked why? He said, ‘You’ve been here 41 years. It’s enough.’ I asked, were there were any complaints about me? I don’t understand. A year ago, I was fine. If I’m so bad, why are you letting me coach this year? He said, ‘I’ll give you a victory lap. I’ll make you a party.’ He said, ‘I’m not going to be here 41 years, why should you be?’”
Halpert added, “You named the [court] floor for me, raised $250,000 in my name, made a speech that I was the greatest thing since chopped liver, and now, a year later you fire me?”
In an email to friends, Halpert said Joel “demanded that I announce my retirement… and sign a non-disclosure agreement. In November I informed the President that I was not prepared to make a decision about retirement at that time and under no circumstances would I sign a non-disclosure agreement. In December I received a termination letter stating that my services were ‘deeply appreciated’ just not wanted any more. … Although I am obviously very disappointed by his decision I will never allow one decision made by one person in one moment of time to negate the wonderful experiences and associations that I have enjoyed over the past 42 years. My love and admiration for Yeshiva University, its administrators, faculty and students remain as strong as ever.”
Some wondered if the firing was about YU needing to save money. “Oh, it can’t be about money,” said Halpert. “I won’t tell you my salary because I’m embarrassed. No, not embarrassed, but people too often value you by how much money you make. When I started at Yeshiva I made $1,000, OK? Then I made $3,000 for many years. I never complained because I had another job.” In 2012, The New York Times reported that over the duration of his career he often earned less than $25,000. Halpert told us, “I always thought of my coaching job as my way of giving back to Yeshiva, giving back to the community.”
He added, “There’s nobody who wanted to see me leave. Nobody.” Even the athletic director wanted you to stay? “OK, very good. Let’s put it this way. We didn’t have the closest relationship. Cordial. About two or three years ago, we had a pretty serious difference but it was resolved and from that point forward everything was fine. This decision was way beyond the athletic director. This decision was made by the president.”
The YU Maccabees have a 4-12 record in the Skyline Conference (Division III) and 6-17 overall, but making the playoffs three times in the last six years. At one point, Halpert had 15 consecutive winning seasons. He coached more than 300 players, including Dave Kufeld, drafted by the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers in 1980.
Kufeld told The Jewish Week that the Halpert’s influence on his players extended “way beyond the end lines of the court.” The coach had “a fierce devotion towards faithfully representing everything Yeshiva University has historically stood for, and for maintaining the proper perspective and attitude when experiencing either victory or defeat. … Hundreds of former and current players see him as a friend and mentor in all matters of life, basketball and even religious observance. We are greatly saddened and troubled by the impending end of the Halpert era at YU, and we are encouraging everyone whose lives he has touched to attend the team’s final game, next Saturday night [Feb. 22, 8:30 p.m. versus Maritime at Yeshiva’s Washington Heights campus] to accord him a measure of hakarat hatov — grateful thanks.”
Few coaches can say their whole life has been spent at one school, but Halpert can say it perhaps more than anyone. His father worked there, and Halpert went to Yeshiva University’s high school, then Yeshiva College where he was captain of the basketball team, then Yeshiva’s Ferkauf Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences, before his first coaching job at Yeshiva’s high school.
Not only did Halpert’s players have to balance a dual Jewish-secular curriculum, but for more than a decade, before the Stern Center opened in 1985, Halpert’s teams didn’t have a home court and often had often to travel to “home” games at Brooklyn College, or in high school gyms, sometimes practicing in a school near the Whitestone Bridge. YU’s only gym, in those days, was of limited use, with too low of a ceiling to contain the high arc of some shots.
Halpert was twice named coach of the year in the Skyline Conference, and received the National Association of Basketball Coaches “Guardians of the Game” honor in 2003-04. The Metropolitan Basketball Writers Association awarded him its “Good Guy” award in 1997-98. In 1997, the New York Times included Halpert in “a look at some of the best coaching performances in the metropolitan New York area this season.” In a recent game against St. Joseph’s, Halpert was honored and St. Joseph’s offered to play Hatikvah played before the game, but St. Joseph’s didn’t have a recording.
Yeshiva’s former athletic director, Richard Zerneck, once told the Times: “Jonny is of the old school, of people like Nat Holman and Red Holtzman and our old great coach, Red Sarachek. They run the backdoor cuts and emphasize ‘see the ball’ …. No one knows the game better than Jonny.”
At times getting choked-up, Halpert said, “Everything’s for the best. That’s what we’re supposed to believe. I know who I am. I know what I’ve done. The single most important thing that a coach has, or any leader has, is integrity. Treating players, treating people with respect. What does ‘no comment’ mean? I’m not going to walk around saying I retired when I know I didn’t. Sooner or later it had to end. I understand, but to end this way…