Aaron Liberman must balance life as Orthodox Jew and college player
An Orthodox Jewish basketball player came to Brooklyn. You'd think this would occasion a parade, thousands of people in the seats, perhaps an impromptu hora.
But a relatively sparse crowd showed up for Tulane's Dec. 28 matchup against St. John's at Barclays Center. Those who waited in line at David K's, the glatt Kosher proprietor, were mostly unaware of Aaron Liberman, Tulane's center with the winding path to the Green Wave, though the UnderArmour yarmulke gave him away on his first journey through the layup line.
For those aware of just how celebrated Jewish athletes are among the Jewish people, even those with tenuous connections to the religion, here was a chance to root for the real thing: a legitimate Division I center trying to get better on the court, a true student excelling at an elite school and a young man, 21 years old, trying to balance both with his faith.
For Liberman, religion comes first, both chronologically and in his priorities. Orthodox Judaism is a constant pull on an adherent's time, thoughts and energy, whether in pursuit of Kosher food, or the numerous times within the day for prayer, either individually or ideally, in a minyan (a worship ritual). A portion of each day is dedicated to study.
That has been Liberman's life. Basketball was more of an arranged marriage that took. As his redshirt sophomore season comes to an end—Tulane opens its first game in the AAC tournament on Thursday, but at 15-15, it isn't likely to reach a postseason tournament—the 6'10" Liberman is working to keep both in perfect balance.
He grew up in southern California, the son of Lenard, owner of a number of television and radio stations, and Sarah. His dad had played high school basketball, and his mom was an Israeli sprinter.
But for Aaron, basketballe was an afterthought until well into high school. He didn't play for his varsity team as a freshman, and it wasn't because the school was a basketball power—he attended Valley Torah, an 86-student Jewish high school without its own gym.
But former Clippers center Josh Moore took one look at the lanky Liberman in the gym, and explained that basketball could be a pathway to a better, even free education.
Three years later, Liberman drew interest from Division I schools across the country, thanks to averages of 18 points, 11 rebounds and nine blocks as part of Valley Torah's conference-winning season—oh, and a 3.4 GPA, too.
“My goals have sort of changed over the years,” Liberman says. “I first started playing basketball to get into a really high academic school.”
To find the right fit, Liberman needed a sufficiently challenging academic atmosphere. He also wanted to challenge himself on the basketball court, especially after he grew beyond the Division III programs he'd believed would be his ceiling early in his high school career. And he needed a Jewish community, not just for Shabbat dinner on a Friday night, but to continue immersing himself in the study of Orthodox Judaism.
“It's a triple major, basically,” Liberman said, with a laugh.
So Liberman chose Northwestern at first, and the fit looked ideal. He planned to double major in Political Science and Economics, but if he changed his mind (as he has), the school had plenty of elite alternatives. Coach Bill Carmody, previously the head coach at Princeton, was on board with letting Liberman travel ahead of and behind the team when games fell on Shabbat, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. Liberman met Rabbi Josh Livingstone, and connected with a large Orthodox Jewish community in Chicago. After a year in Israel, Liberman redshirted his freshman year in 2012-13, but prepared himself and was ready to give basketball his best shot.
And then Carmody got fired, replaced by Chris Collins. Liberman played nine minutes all season. If he wanted to give Division I basketball a real shot, he'd need to go elsewhere.
There was plenty of interest. College teams always need size. Qualifying academically was not a problem. But there were other challenges for Liberman.
“Columbia would have been great,” Liberman said. “But the Ivy League, they play Friday night and Saturday. So the travel would have been a problem. I know Penn was really interested in getting me when I was transferring from Northwestern, but I just told them, straight up, I can't travel Friday night. I can't do that. And they said, 'Thank you for being honest.'”
Enter Ed Conroy, Tulane coach's coach and a native of Davenport, Iowa. There is a Chabad—a Jewish community center—of the Quad Cities, but Conroy hadn't been there.
“I would say, very limited,” Conroy said when I asked what his knowledge or experience with Judaism had been prior to Liberman. “But I knew it was limited. So not only am I going to have to rely on him to communicate with me, I'm going to have to ask a lot of questions.”
“But the university was great. They said, 'If you can handle it from a team standpoint, we're more than happy to make whatever accommodations we need to make, travel or anything else.'"
But even knowing what questions to ask posed a challenge for Conroy. The only known orthodox Jewish player in Division I history is Tamir Goodman, who played at Towson State early this century.
“You know, there aren't a lot of coaches around the country I can call call up and ask how they've done this,” Conroy said, chuckling. “But whether it's eating, or learning the calendar, I would say it's all been interesting. I admire Aaron. I admire him for his discipline and his dedication to it. And I'm a big believer that if you show that discipline and dedication in one area, then you can show it in other areas as well. And it's been great for our guys to see someone who's so committed to his faith.”
[daily_cut.college basketball]Liberman made the switch. The road trips include a search for Kosher food. Back when he was at Northwestern, Liberman was pleasantly surprised to find several Kosher spots when he traveled to play at the University of Minnesota. But plenty of other road trips require him to pack his own food.
He arrived in New Orleans last summer, and basketball-wise, he says it's been wonderful, even though he's played only 44 minutes in 12 games and scored just 10 points all season. Still, he's fully committed to getting better, and stronger. He's at 210 pounds now, and to do battle with the players at his height he says he'd like to get to 230, 235.
“Aaron is a capable basketball player,” Conroy said. “He has a knack for blocking shots, he has great touch around the basket, but he can also make shots from the perimeter. And with Aaron, he's been great about it, but I hope Aaron realizes that he's early in the process. But I could see him making major contributions for us as he goes through his career.”
Liberman is majoring in Marketing, getting himself ready for a possible career in his father's business, though he isn't ready to commit to a future profession yet. Nor is he quite ready to give up on the dream of putting on the uniform of Maccabi Tel Aviv, a pro team in Israel, and he notes that his religion means he wouldn't cost Maccabi a precious international slot.
Liberman is far from the only Jewish student at Tulane. In fact, according to Reform Judaism magazine, the school has the ninth-most Jews of any private university in the country. Even then, however, Liberman is unique.
“I think I'm the only, I could be wrong, but the only one I've encountered, the only Orthodox Jew at Tulane,” he says. "It's kind of more difficult."
This isn't some kind of Jewish snobbery on Liberman's part. A critical part of his religion is continuing to learn and study, not by himself, but in colloquies. The studying goes on, with Rabbi Livingstone, for example, via Skype. But it's yet another challenge when Judaism is just one of several significant pulls at Liberman's time.
“This is the first time in my 21 years that I've ever lived in a place where I haven't had a Jewish community to be a part of and to support me,” Liberman said. “The crux of the orthodox community's strength and the ability for all to persevere through anything lies within the community itself and the support and belonging involved in that. If Tulane was located in a place where there was a strong Jewish community there would be nothing that could stand in my way psychologically or physically that could prevent me from achieving the highest levels of success athletically.”
Still, Liberman has the support of Conroy, and a family that flew a contingent clear across the country to be in Brooklyn on the off chance he might play. And with just over three minutes left in the game, Conroy called Liberman over, put his hand on Liberman's arm and gave him some instructions.
“Coach Conroy just told me that I played really well in the past three practices and he said that he should have played me more and he should have played me earlier,” Liberman said. “To be completely honest though I feel that he made the right decision playing me the amount that he did, I haven't played even close to my potential recently in practice even if he thinks that what I exhibited in practice was very good.”
Liberman played three minutes, picking up a blocked shot, but the Green Wave lost to St. John's by 25. After the game, Liberman's extended family surrounded Aaron. An iPhone was handed over, a group photo taken. Then they left, in search of one of the many Brooklyn Kosher eateries, along with some family time—something else that has ben in short supply while Liberman balances his three majors.