They lined up for blocks along Amsterdam Avenue in December, standing in the cold for two hours, hoping to squeeze into the modest Max Stern Athletic Center for a glimpse at the hottest college basketball team in New York City.
Inside, the Yeshiva men’s basketball team, led by Ryan Turell, the top scorer in the country with his bouncing blond curls and smooth, feathery touch, was preparing to tip off.
About 500 people were turned away that night, unable to fit inside the 1,000-seat gym that has rocked and rolled over a three-year span in which the Maccabees compiled a 54-2 record, including 18-1 this year (11-0 in conference play). Turnout was similar for their next home game, against the Merchant Marine Academy on Feb. 1, when Turell dropped 31 points to become Yeshiva’s career leading scorer — with Leon Rose, the president of the Knicks, in the seats watching.
Others could not get in, and some of them peered from a window as fans inside, many of them wearing yarmulkes, the traditional Jewish head covering, stood and chanted “M.V.P.” for their hero.
“I came to Yeshiva from London and didn’t know anything about basketball,” said Michael Smolowitz, a second-year student and fan. “Once I got here, I was bombarded with it. It’s quite a big deal.”
College basketball has been in a decades-long slump in the New York area, a place that used to cherish the spectacle and passion of the college game. But at Yeshiva, a Jewish university tucked into Washington Heights — not much more than a long 3-pointer from the snarled traffic of the Cross Bronx Expressway — the game is thriving.
The Maccabees are ranked sixth in the country, led by a Division III superstar who turned down offers from Division I schools so that he could be a “Jewish hero” at little Yeshiva, where the head coach works full time as a lawyer, the weight room is smaller than at many high schools and the training table pales compared to what student-athletes are served at Duke and Michigan.
But at Yeshiva, with a student body of about 2,600 undergrads, Turell has fulfilled his quest to be a hero. He is known there and around the world. He can barely make it across campus without several admirers greeting him and wishing him luck. Elliot Steinmetz, the head coach and a former Yeshiva player, says he receives emails from across the globe expressing support and admiration for the team, which has become a kind of torch bearer for Jewish athletic pride.
“I got an email this morning from someone in Australia, who wanted to know where he could buy a Y.U. jersey,” Steinmetz said. “He wanted to wear it around the streets of Sydney. I get contacted by Jewish people in Alaska, England, South America. Pretty much everywhere.”
Yeshiva owes a good deal of its success to Turell, the team’s transcendent star. On a recent morning, a group of students spotted him as he strolled to campus from his nearby apartment along Amsterdam Avenue. As word spread, they poured out of a local pizza joint, pointing their phone cameras toward him, shaking his hand and asking questions about his game that night.
A lithe, 6-foot-6 senior with lofty professional and spiritual aspirations, Turell is averaging 28.1 points per game, the most by any player in all three divisions of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, male or female. Turrell says he’s fine to lead the country in scoring, as long as it helps the team. But if the Maccabees don’t win a championship, it would be “pointless,” he said.
Turell has scored at least 30 points six times this season and has surpassed 40 twice, including a school-record 51-point performance against Manhattanville in November.
“I don’t care who it’s against, if you drop 50 on someone, that says something,” said Michael Sweetney, a Yeshiva assistant coach and former forward for the Knicks and Bulls in the N.B.A. “But the best part was, we really needed it that night.”
As the season hurtles toward tournament play, Turell, who turned 22 on Feb. 3, is the leading candidate for Division III player of the year. It’s a nice feeling, sure, but Turell shrugs. All that matters to the player some have dubbed the Jewish Larry Bird is a chance at postseason play.
“We didn’t get the chance before,” Turell said. “For a lot of people, it was a story without an ending.”
The Division III tournaments the last two years were canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. The 2020 tournament was especially heartbreaking for the Macs because it ended after they had reached the round of 16 and a highly anticipated matchup against No. 3 Randolph-Macon. Yeshiva had won 29 games in a row and yearned to prove itself against one of the elite programs in its division.
The next year it happened again, and all the Maccabees had to comfort themselves were a 7-0 record and a newly coined saying: “We picked a bad time to be good,” as Gabriel Leifer, the sturdy co-captain and the rock of the team, put it. This year’s tournament appears on track, but the recent coronavirus surge has left a tinge of uncertainty.
“At first you’re so disappointed,” Leifer said, “but then you see the hospitalization rates and realize, it’s a good thing we didn’t put 1,000 people in a gym. But now, hopefully, it’s finally time for us and Ryan to show what we have.”
Turell grew up in Sherman Oaks, Calif., outside Los Angeles, the son of Brad Turell, a former guard at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Ryan played basketball at both Valley Torah, a Jewish school, and for Earl Watson Elite, a top A.A.U. team. He had offers to play in Division I and was tempted, but ultimately felt it would be more authentic to embrace his faith. Plus, he knew Yeshiva because his older brother, Jack, played there, and he believed in Steinmetz and everything the coach promised.
“I went to Jewish schools my whole life, I grew up religious, I keep kosher,” Turell said. “I was like, ‘What are we doing here? I want to go to Yeshiva.’ My parents were kind of shocked because my dream was to play Division I. But I told them, ‘I want to be a Jewish hero.’”
Turell now plays with a yarmulke atop his floppy blond mane, but didn’t always. He didn’t wear one in A.A.U. games nor when he played in some fierce summer pickup games in L.A. alongside college — and occasional N.B.A. — players. He wasn’t comfortable with the attention, but he now regrets that choice and always wears it, highlighting his pride in his Judaism.
“Just to show that Jews can hang,” he said with a smile, “that we can still play basketball.”
Sometimes in pickup games he will hear lighthearted comments, like when he scores on an opposing player and then hears that player’s teammate comment, “He’s balling you up with a yarmulke on.”
Those amuse him. But there can be an uglier side. Turell said he has heard antisemitic slurs, like “Jew boy,” on the court in high school and in college, including in a game this season. He wouldn’t identify the team or what was said, because the Maccabees chose to settle that score on the court.
Turell told Steinmetz during a timeout, and the coach was prepared to march the Maccabees right off the court in protest. But Turell, insisting the slurs only fuel his desire to win, said it would be better to beat the team, which the Maccabees did. Steinmetz, who said such incidents are rare, was proud of how the entire team responded. The school is proud, too.
“They aren’t just playing for a university,” Yeshiva President Ari Berman said on the court after a recent win. “They are playing for a people.”
But as Yeshiva continues to win, some experts wonder if its record is inflated by playing in the Skyline conference, which is not the most competitive in Division III. When the Maccabees faced highly ranked Illinois Wesleyan in December, the game was seen as a litmus test of where Yeshiva stood. An unprecedented hype buzzed across Division III basketball. Fans lined up for hours to get in.
Illinois Wesleyan won, 73-59, snapping Yeshiva’s 50-game winning streak. But Ron Rose, the Titans coach, left Washington Heights impressed.
“Turell is at the top of everyone’s scouting report, and he still gets his points,” Rose said. “Yeshiva is legit. I saw all the rhetoric about their strength of schedule. I don’t buy it. There is no question they can compete at the highest level.”
For Turell, the highest level could also mean a professional career. He hopes to play in the N.B.A. and eventually in Israel. N.B.A. teams have sent scouts to Yeshiva’s games, and Turell assiduously practices from the N.B.A. 3-point line to increase his chances — he shoots until he makes at least 300 shots per day.
It was on just such a long-range shot on Tuesday that Turell broke Yeshiva’s career record for most points scored (he now has 1,906). After the game, Steinmetz sent the young hero a message to say he was proud of him. Turell texted right back.
“Everything you said we would do has come true,” Turell wrote. “Now, let’s go win a national championship.”