Today, the National Hillel Basketball Tournament is known all around the country as the largest inter-collegiate basketball tournament for Jewish students. Often in looking at something of that echelon, we wonder how it took flight.
This week, the NHBT Board reconnected with many of the Tournament Board’s pioneers, gaining inside perspectives on the journey that began as an idea and later became a reality that unfolded a legacy.
Mike Shrager was a freshman at the University of Maryland when Rachel Klausner got him involved with the dawn of the Tournament back in 2010.
“Rachel had this idea,” Shrager said. “Little did I know it would be the biggest thing I would be involved with in my life.” He became the first person to be a part of the Tournament Board for all four years of college, seeing its rapid progression firsthand.
According to Klausner, she started brewing thoughts about creating a tournament her freshman year, after engaging in a three-on-three basketball tournament, and hearing a friend’s dad comment about the possibility of getting other schools involved.
Soon that idea catalyzed dozens of other concepts, including making the “tournament” a weekend event. Klausner said she kept a brainstorming notebook; including the bracket structure, how to leverage SGA funding, recruitment tactics, among other things that later proved invaluable in creating the tournament two years later.
She eventually formed a board of 12 people, each member taking on tasks that sometimes required considerable guesswork.
“Our apartment was kind of the headquarters, coming up with something new every day,” former Board member Eli Geller said. Geller later went on to co-chair the Board in subsequent years.
Klausner said both Maryland’s vibrant and large Jewish community gave her more motivation, she easily imagined a student body readily willing to host visiting students.
“Given how far its come, the thought that there was doubt as to whether we’d have enough funds to make it happen might sound crazy, but (that) was a serious consideration in year one,” former finance and fundraising chairs Sam Neumark said.
Neumark said he still feels the impact of the fundraising work he did, noting many earlier sponsors paved the way for the high caliber brand partnerships formed in recent years.
Shlomo Golshirazian, the Board’s first logistics and basketball operational chair, explained the NHBT Board vets felt a general sense of responsibility to ensure they didn’t fail.
“We had to prove ourselves,” Klausner said. “The first board of people had to totally trust I wasn’t wasting their time, I’m so grateful to them.”
The Tournament brought together 34 teams in its first year, after gaining immense support and assistance from other student groups on campus and sponsors.
“The best part was the people. The late nights. Seeing it all come together on one weekend…it all comes together and you not only witnessed it, but you did it,” Neumark said.
Many of the pioneers recalled the championship game with a hint of nostalgia. They recalled leading team Yeshiva University taking on underdog Washington University in St. Louis, going into triple overtime before Wash U unexpectedly clinched the win.
Six years later, the Tournament has exploded. NHBT’s evolution has more than doubled the organization’s budget and gathered over 300 athletes. As of 2015 it has offered participants hotel accommodations, and even provides every player with a custom set of apparel.
“I was so committed to the dream that it would grow over time,” Klausner said. “It’s student-led, and every year they completely impress and do something new.”
The Tournament weekend’s Shabbat dinner has expanded into an over 600-person meal, participants engage with a speaking panel of Jews in the professional basketball world, and the NHBT Board itself has increased to 20 members. Brands such as Under Armour, Gatorade, Aquafina and Muscle Milk have all acted as sponsors, allowing the organization to continuously elevate the Tournament’s caliber.
Yet each year that bar is raised and the Tournament takes on the challenge to reach new heights.
In speaking about NHBT’s first ever championship game, Goshirazian called it a “Cinderella type story.” Klausner said it showed “anyone has a chance.” And If the development and creation of this event is any indication, nothing can be more true for teams involved in this tournament.