Debbie Berkowitz remembers her former husband, Jeff, as a loud, opinionated New Jerseyite who loved all sports but had a particular passion for coaching youth league basketball at the Valley of the Sun JCC (The J). Sadly, Marfan syndrome prematurely ended that passion in 2006, when Jeff died at age 39.
But he was not forgotten.
In August 2018, The J decided to honor him by changing the name of its youth basketball league to the Jeff Berkowitz Youth Basketball League. The league is for kids from pre-K through seventh grades.
“When Alex Sachs (director of sports at The J) told me about it, I was flabbergasted,” Debbie said. “I couldn’t believe she thought this up and had this vision for Jeff’s legacy. I was really touched.”
The youth basketball league, which has been described as a “training league,” is dedicated to teaching Jeff Berkowitz’s core values of sportsmanship, skill development, integrity, perseverance and community. Described as “Jeff’s Way,” the program looks to teach kids how to be great both on and off the court.
Rather than simply organizing kids into teams and starting tournaments, the youth league focuses its first few weeks on going over the basic fundamentals of the sport through basketball clinics.
“These clinics are not just about learning basketball fundamentals, but also learning to be an athlete with a purpose,” Sachs said in a statement. “The clinics are part of the legacy of Jeff Berkowitz and how he would help players dig deep and realize that what it means to be an excellent player is also what it means to be an excellent human being.”
Before moving to Arizona, Jeff was the captain of his high school basketball team in the early ’80s, which Debbie joked was always his claim to fame.
He left New Jersey to study psychology at Arizona State University, where he was a member of the Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi. He and Debbie met in college and married shortly after graduation. The two had three children together and attended Temple Chai.
Jeff spent his career climbing the corporate ladder at CVS, starting out as a phone sales representative and ultimately becoming vice president of sales. Although Jeff lived in Arizona since he was 18, his true sports loves were New York teams. He particularly loved the New York Knicks.
Debbie said that even though her late husband was physically active, Marfan syndrome took its toll. It’s a genetic disorder that directly affects the body’s connective tissue, causing mutations and enlargements in certain areas of the body. A common symptom of the syndrome is an enlarged aortic valve that can cause severe chest pains and affect blood flow.
Jeff received two cardiovascular surgeries to help his condition. But in December 2006, he suffered from an aggressive staph infection that resulted in a stroke, hospitalization and eventually death.
Although The J’s CEO Jay Jacobs never had the opportunity to meet Jeff, he hopes that what the basketball clinics and league teach will match “Jeff’s Way” of coaching, which he thinks is more about the values of good sportsmanship over individual talent. Jacobs himself coaches in the youth league.
“It’s really getting across to the kids that there’s a right way to do this,” Jacobs said. “They can win by playing the game the wrong way, but to tell you the truth, I’d rather them lose by playing the right way.”
Just before the league began in October 2018, The J received a grant in the amount of $2,500 from Phoenix Suns Charities. This is the first time a youth league program at The J has received a grant from the NBA team. It also gave The J an opportunity to name the league after Jeff.
Jeff Berkowitz is not the only late Jewish Valley resident to be honored through basketball. Phoenix Hebrew Academy is dedicating a new basketball court to alumnus and former basketball player Ari Dovid Block.
Block left his hometown of Phoenix after graduating from Phoenix Hebrew Academy and lived in Israel for a time. He later studied Judaica at Yeshiva University in New York. Block loved being a camp counselor to children with special needs. He understood those needs. Throughout his life, Block dealt with a degenerative heart condition. He died in May 2007 at 24.
He is survived by his wife, Faige Ludmir, and son, Avraham Yeshaya, who was born a month after Block’s death.
A plaque at the new Phoenix Hebrew Academy court states, “Ari was a great basketball player and a true mensch both on and off the court. We hope that this new court will serve as inspiration for our students to play like Ari did; with courage, integrity and a winning spirit.”
The court will be unveiled on Sunday, Jan. 27, with a game between two Phoenix Hebrew Academy alumni teams.
That two Jewish men are being honored through basketball shouldn’t be much of a surprise. In the early 20th century, basketball became a popular sport for many Americans due to its emphasis on teamwork and cooperation. The sport thrived in urban environments and became popular among Jewish youth in settlement houses and communal institutions.
The City College of New York fielded a team made up almost exclusively of Jewish players, who in the mid-’30s were considered all-stars in their community.
With the exception of Amar’e Stoudemire, there are very few high-profile American Jewish pro basketball players today, although Israeli players are beginning to make their mark on the NBA. While Jacobs isn’t entirely sure why the sport has remained such a strong tradition among Jews, he suspects that it’s because the game teaches the values both Berkowitz and Block lived by.
“This is all about learning the game and understanding the importance of the values,” Jacobs said. “At the end of our first league, we didn’t have an award for most valuable player; we had awards for who was the most spirited, who understood the values the best and who was the most improved.” JN