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‘Eyes of the world’ on Cleveland as NCAA Women’s Final Four nears

The Jewish Coaches Association, now in its 20th year, conducts a small slate on the schedule.

David Gilbert (center), president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, discusses the Women's NCAA Final Four with Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, and ESPN sportscaster Carolyn Peck during a press conference at Rocket Morgage FieldHouse arena in Cleveland on Feb. 27, 2024. Credit: Alexandra Golden/Cleveland Jewish News.
David Gilbert (center), president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, discusses the Women's NCAA Final Four with Jon Steinbrecher, commissioner of the Mid-American Conference, and ESPN sportscaster Carolyn Peck during a press conference at Rocket Morgage FieldHouse arena in Cleveland on Feb. 27, 2024. Credit: Alexandra Golden/Cleveland Jewish News.

March Madness has arrived, and the worlds of college basketball will soon be fixated on Cleveland for the Women’s Final Four on April 5 and April 7 and in Phoenix for the Men’s Final Four on April 6 and April 8.

Whether their respective team is in the Final Four, most coaches and many administrators attend the championships for clinics or conventions.

The Jewish Coaches Association, now in its 20th year, conducts a small slate on the schedule, with a meeting on the Friday of Final Four weekend and a brunch on that Saturday or Sunday. In Cleveland, women members of the JCA will convene from noon to 2 p.m. at Key Tower for those events.

The men’s conclave attracted more than 200 coaches last year in Houston. Now, there’s a push to have more women join the organization.

“We like to have an open forum for anybody who wants to promote or present something they’re doing,” Matt Elkin, men’s basketball director of operations at Yale University, who is taking a role in recruiting members, told the Cleveland Jewish News.

“We have members of the JCA that are involved in other nonprofit organizations or have done things with their teams, who share those ideas with the group,” Elkin said. “So, our members are made aware of these other innovations and people in our great organization.”

Last year at the Women’s Final Four in Dallas was the first time the JCA conducted festivities for women; about 40 coaches attended.

“The primary goal and focus is to identify and connect Jewish coaches, established or not,” Elkin said. “That’s the main thing. Some people will come for two hours and stay the whole time, or some will come just for 10 minutes to say hello. This year, we’ll try to include people from the local community who are living in Cleveland to be made aware of this organization and become involved in whatever way they can to help us continue to grow and expand.”

Matt Elkin
Matt Elkin. Credit: Courtesy.

The current women’s membership of the Jewish group is a small one, but there are hopes it will grow, Elkin said. Last year, former Holy Cross basketball star Sherry Levin, most recently coach at Worcester Academy in Massachusetts, spoke at the women’s event.

“We have initiated this because it’s really a wonderful group to be a part of when you look at things that we face, when you look at how the world has changed,” Levin told the CJN. “It’s nice to have a group where not only do we share our love of basketball, but also the love of our heritage. Coaches who love the game, who have goals, can learn from one another. Add that portion to your heritage, and you’re creating a deeper connection.

“I asked her (Levin) to come out and help greet everybody, and we had about 40 people there last year, which was great. I had no idea what to expect. I would have been happy if five people showed up.”

‘More like a Jewish sports association’

One interested Jewish executive is Liron Fanan, general manager of the Cleveland Charge, the Cavaliers’ G-League team. She is the fourth female general manager in the NBA G-League.

“They are trying to push this and have more women network and get to know each other, and help each other,” Fanan told the CJN. “Is it enough? Not yet. There are not enough women who have put themselves out there. But we’re trying to have these things happen.”

The men’s side of the JCA presents the annual “Red Auerbach Coach of the Year Award.” Brad Greenberg of Radford University in Virginia was the first recipient in 2019. Keith Dambrot, who just this week announced his retirement from coaching following the NCAA tournament, where he is currently at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, won the Auerbach award in 2013 in the wake of his work at the University of Akron.

Elkin isn’t sure when the organization will present a similar award for women but said he hopes it is soon.

“The hope is that we’ll be able to identify more women at the Women’s Final Four who can join us,” Elkin said. “I’m hoping that on the women’s side, as we continue to have more events, we’ll continue to get the word out there to more coaches.”

He continued, saying “high school coaches, international coaches and coaches from other sports are starting to get involved, so it’s grown beyond just this college men’s basketball group. Part of my mission has been to reach out to many other people and make it almost more like a Jewish sports association, rather than just a Jewish coaching association.”

Steve Mark is a freelance journalist. This story originally appeared in the Cleveland Jewish News.

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