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Life Lessons Learned on the Basketball Court

Life Lessons Learned on the Basketball Court

Preteen boys playing basketball on an indoor court

When I became a Jewish summer camp professional in 1994, I lacked most of the skills and experience needed to do my job well. That’s not self-deprecation or false modesty. That’s a fact. Luckily, I received great support and mentoring and am a voracious learner – and lately, as I’ve been thinking about what allowed me to survive such an inauspicious start, I came up with one asset that made a big difference.

Basketball.

I started playing basketball at age 5. I grew up in a rowhouse in Philadelphia less than 100 steps to the courts, and I loved to play by myself, with friends and strangers, and especially with my father.

Eventually, basketball became a focal point of my life at school, at camp, and in my day-dreams of the future. While fantasies of donning a Sixers uniform lost traction, the one constant basketball offered me was that it was on the court and around the game that I found an abundance of life lessons.

This summer, the basketball specialty counselor at URJ Camp Harlam (the Reform Jewish summer camp where I serve as executive director) is an Israeli named Raz. He’s spending his first summer at camp and he recently asked me for advice on running his activity.

Raz knows I love basketball, and even during our first interview the conversation drifted to our shared infatuation for the game and coaching. For me, the chance to coach children and teenagers began when I was still in high school and continued through many years of working as a coach. This all gave way to a career in Jewish community leadership, but the experiences were formative. I’ve leveraged the necessary skills in motivation, mentoring, management, and interpersonal relationships cultivated on the court for the benefit of my work.

Raz’s interest has already led to training and certification at the acclaimed Wingate Institute in Israel and a plan to make coaching his career. His approach to this work – even at summer camp – is admirably professional.

In this case, Raz was simply a staffer looking for support and guidance. But if I couldn’t relate to my own time put into coaching basketball – including the two summers I worked in a similar position at camp – he and I may not have felt good about the conversation. I didn’t have an easy answer on how to balance fun and learning in a camp activity, or what to do when campers show up with varying interest and skills, but we did enjoy the chance to workshop ideas.

And what we really talked about wasn’t basketball drills or coaching tips. What I was modeling was a camp professional’s need and ability to provide guidance to someone who wants to ensure that the campers are as happy as they can possibly be. This was a lesson learned through time spent in gyms, courts, and parks, and I hope it helped Raz in some way.

Just a few days later, basketball gifted me another lesson.

I found myself courtside at Pinemere Camp as Camp Harlam’s junior campers competed in a basketball game. It was the final competition of the day, and though the teams were well-matched, Pinemere led throughout the game and our campers struggled to get on top. Still, it was a great game, with lots of made shots, unselfish passes, tenacious defense, and support for both teams from the many spectators. I stood next to Pinemere’s director during the final minutes of the game as things got especially intense.

With less than a minute left, our players closed the margin to just one point. Pinemere’s players were about to finish as the victors, but after a hectic play at Harlam’s defensive end, one of our players stole the ball and charged downcourt for a layup. The ball caromed off the backcourt and dropped gently through the net. Time expired. A win for Harlam!

The players mobbed each other and fans streamed onto the court; I rushed to Ben, who’d hit the game-winner, as he celebrated with his teammate, Zach.

First, some context: Our campers learn about the values and principles of tikkun middot, the path to being your best self, but the sometimes-tense interactions with their “rival” camp occasionally spill over. They’d already lost a couple of the other games that day. Imagine how it felt, as a camp professional and a coach, to hear Ben say to Zach, “Be humble, guys… be humble.”

Amid all the shouting and high-fives was an 11-year-old hero who got it. In that moment, I made the connections between his character, our camp’s emphasis on achreyut (thinking about others), and the joy in basketball to be an experience that allows a lesson like this to be taught and lived. When I made it to Ben, I hugged him, lifted him up, and thanked him.

On the sideline was Raz, his coach. Basketball is great.

Aaron Selkow is the executive director of URJ Camp Harlam, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Kunkletown, PA.

Aaron Selkow
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