|Aaron Liberman (center) - photo credit New York Times|
CHICAGO — On a dark and cold morning last month, 19-year-old Aaron Liberman woke at his apartment and walked a block and a half to a two-story, redbrick synagogue in West Rogers Park, a predominantly Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in northwest Chicago. Inside, he was met by the hum of worship and a smattering of older men — some in black hats, some wrapped in prayer shawls — seated at long tables, surrounded by shelves packed with books, Hebrew letters on their spines.
Liberman removed his jacket and unpacked his worn prayer book. He unfurled his tefillin, small boxes holding prayers printed on parchment, and bound them to his left arm and his forehead with black leather straps. Then he prayed.
During the service, a man walked over, politely interrupting Liberman’s meditation, asked how he was, and then, rather proudly, said: “We’re going to get tickets for one of your games. My kids, they are very excited.”
So met two worlds — Orthodox Judaism and N.C.A.A. Division I basketball — that are making an unlikely connection through Liberman. Liberman, a freshman at Northwestern, is 6 feet 10 inches of lean muscle, topped on and off the court by a skullcap. He did not play basketball seriously until he was a sophomore in high school. Now, he is believed to be the third practicing Orthodox Jew to be part of a Division I team.
Tamir Goodman is widely recognized as the first Orthodox Jew to play Division I basketball. He received a scholarship to Maryland, but chose to play at Towson because the university tailored its schedule to his decision not to play on the Sabbath. Naama Shafir, a fifth-year senior at Toledo, is the first Orthodox Jewish woman to play Division I basketball. Shafir, who wears a short-sleeve shirt under her jersey to keep with customs of modesty, scored 40 points in the National Invitation Tournament championship game in 2011.
Liberman, though, says he recognizes his situation is a bit unusual.
“If I had to choose, I wouldn’t be known as the Jewish basketball player,” Liberman said. “But I see how that might be difficult.”
After the morning service, Liberman drove his black pickup truck 15 minutes to Northwestern’s campus in suburban Evanston, Ill., where he went straight to the training room. Liberman, who has had shin splints and has not appeared in a game, has decided to redshirt this season but continues to practice and travel with the team.
As noted by Paul Lukas of the Web site Uni Watch, Liberman will probably be the first Division I player to wear zizit, the knotted tassels at the four corners of a prayer shawl, under a uniform.
“It wasn’t very long ago that I couldn’t make a layup, probably freshman year in high school,” he said. “It’s pretty strange that I’m here.”
The life of an Orthodox basketball player is one of discipline. Liberman prays three times a day, keeps kosher and travels only by foot on the Sabbath, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.
However, Liberman has decided, after much reflection and consultation with rabbis, to play on the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest. On one Saturday afternoon, he walked eight miles to practice.
“Actually, playing basketball is not breaking any of the 39 laws of the Sabbath,” he said. “But I’ll only be taking cold showers afterward because you can’t use hot water.”
Liberman grew up in Valley Village, an area of northwestern Los Angeles, where he was discovered almost by happenstance by Josh Moore, a former N.B.A. player and a cousin of Shaquille O’Neal’s. During the summer after Liberman’s freshman year, Moore saw him play in a scrimmage and approached him, noting that his length and natural athleticism would be attractive to college coaches.
Lenard Liberman, Aaron’s 6-6 father, played high school basketball and tried unsuccessfully to walk on at Stanford. His son, thoughtful and soft-spoken, preferred games of a slower pace. He fished as a child and played some baseball as he grew older.
But after Moore raised the possibility of playing in college, Liberman began training with him.
“All of a sudden, he got excited about playing basketball,” said Lenard Liberman, an executive at Liberman Broadcasting, a media company founded and run by the family. “It’s been amazing for our whole community to watch him become this player.”
The summer after his junior season, Aaron Liberman joined an Amateur Athletic Union team coached by Robert Icart, who has worked with N.B.A. players like Gilbert Arenas. Under Icart’s tutelage, Liberman pushed harder.
“Aaron is industrious in every rep,” Icart said. “He immerses himself in every drill. The difference between Division I, II and III kids isn’t necessarily the skill, but size and athleticism. At first, I had to convince him of his talent, but then he started competing, and he saw.”
In his senior season, Liberman led Valley Torah, an 86-student Orthodox high school without a gymnasium, to its first conference championship and a respectable showing in the state playoffs. He was nicknamed the Jewish Dwight Howard.
Rabbi Avrohom Stulberger, Valley Torah’s dean, recalled that after one victory, around Purim, students and teachers stormed the court, singing the holiday’s songs. “It was an underdog’s victory, just like the story of Esther and Mordechai,” he said, referencing the biblical protagonists.
After graduation, Liberman spent seven months in Israel studying the Torah at a cooperative settlement outside Jerusalem. Though he spent roughly 10 hours each day immersed in holy texts, he made trips to a Y.M.C.A. in Jerusalem to work out and shoot around to keep his game sharp.
Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody first saw Liberman at an A.A.U. tournament in Las Vegas. He was there to scout another player, but his eye kept returning to Liberman.
“He had a motor,” Carmody said. “He never quit; you could see it in his defense and rebounding.”
Liberman chose Northwestern over Georgetown and Southern California, and made the team as a preferred walk-on, meaning he was recruited but not given a scholarship. The fact that there was an Orthodox community near campus factored into his decision. Through his parents, he connected with a Jewish chaplain, and now Liberman lives in the family’s basement.
“I try to stay away from the party scene,” Liberman said. “It’s not a very Jewish lifestyle.”
He then motioned to his big-screen television and PlayStation 3 and added, “These are a little more college.”
Northwestern has made arrangements so that he never has to fly on the Sabbath. He takes separate flights if necessary. The university is also designing special skullcaps for him that Under Armour, Northwestern’s apparel sponsor, is having made by a company called Klipped Kippahs.
On the court, Liberman remains a work in progress.
“You look at the rotation of his shot and see he has a ways to go,” Carmody said. “He just hasn’t been doing it that long, but he’s learning and he’s working.”
Liberman, for his part, recognizes the novelty of his situation. He is happy to discuss his religion, his sport and their intersection, without any pretense.
“There’s been a lot of luck every step of the way in my life,” he said. “I definitely take pride in people in the Jewish community seeing me as a role model, but I try not to make too big of a scene. I’m not so vocal; I try to keep to myself.”
He mentioned that he might have interest in playing professionally in Israel after college, but his next hurdle is learning Carmody’s complex Princeton offense. As he tries to master that, one thought comforts him.
“It’s not as complicated as the Torah,” Liberman said.