Red Sarachek Dies At 93
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Wednesday, November 16, 2005
"RED" SARACHEK DIES AT 93
RECOGNIZED AS AN INNOVATOR OF MODERN BASKETBALL STRATEGY
MADE YESHIVA THE "BIRTHPLACE OF MODERN BASKETBALL"
MacsLive Reporting Services (New York, NY) – Legendary Yeshiva basketball coach Bernard "Red" Sarachek, who pioneered strategies and methods that helped shape the modern game, has died. He was 93.
Sarachek, known simply and affectionately as "Coach" by many of his disciples, was "the 'rebbe' for thousands of basketball coaches all around the metropolitan area," recalled current Yeshiva coach Dr. Jonathan Halpert. "Coaches went to Red to get plays the same way people see their rabbis to ask questions."
Halpert studied the game under Coach Sarachek, continuing to use many of the same innovations today. Another of Sarachek's top students was St. John's Coach Lou Carnesecca. When Carnesecca was mentoring Jody King, then a young aspiring coach who was observing the St. John’s program, he advised him that to learn the game he should go to Yeshiva, "the birthplace of modern basketball," a reference to Red Sarachek’s contributions to the sport. King is now an associate head coach with the Macs.
Sarachek was 26 years old, working for the Parks Department and coaching an amateur team when he was approached by some Yeshiva students to coach their team in 1938. He was, at first, skeptical.
"I went down on a Sunday night, and it wasn’t a gym, it was a basement," Coach Sarachek told MacsLive in an interview last March. "And I saw some small, anxious guys running around, and they asked me if I wanted to coach. I headed for the door, but the door was locked."
Sarachek was hired by the student body, not the university. His salary was $300, though he said he never saw it. With ambitions to be a big-time coach, Sarachek thought about leaving; but after seeing how much the players wanted to play and be taught by a coach, he changed his mind.
He found a new gym – eight miles away, in Midtown, at 24th Street and 8th Ave. They could only play three times a week, including games and practices – taking the subway down from Washington Heights after school – though they couldn't come to practice all at once. "It was difficult," Sarachek said, "when some fellas came at seven, some came at eight, some came at nine. The premeds came at nine, because they had labs until then."
They didn't finish until 11 PM. "And if I was angry," Sarachek added, only half-jokingly, "they stayed later."
Tied to His Roots
Sarachek stayed at YU for 39 years after the student body first locked him in the basement and forced him to accept the job. Over that time, he turned the Yeshiva basketball team into a squad of traveling ambassadors, making sure that they remained a point of pride not only for the university, but for Jews everywhere.
"Yeshiva is special," he told MacsLive. "It's a team for the Jewish people to be able to watch them play and be honored by them, to have pride [in them]. When you find a Jewish athlete doing something, you feel proud. That's important to me, more than anything else."
Though Sarachek was not observant in Jewish religious law, he felt a very strong tie to his Jewish roots and cared deeply that Jewish youths maintain their heritage. He saw sports as a way to combat assimilation.
"If I take a kid and I want him to stay with me in Judaism and to enjoy life, I have to give him something. He has 'spectatoritis.' He looks outside and he sees people playing. He wants to be a part of it. So we're giving it to him.
"I'm not only talking about the players. I'm looking at the whole picture. It’s about having pride, and being proud in who we are. We need this. We need to show that we have pride in ourselves. It keeps our morale up. And it makes the kids closer [to Judaism] if they have something to hold on to."
Coach Sarachek was known as a genius and innovator when it came to coaching offense. He was one of the pioneers who taught many concepts relating to moving without the ball, going backdoor, and "playing against the man." Halpert is known to say that it was Red's "Yeshiva Offense" long before it was Pete Carril's "Princeton Offense."
Sarachek's influence was widespread and felt far beyond the walls of YU. Retired Hall of Fame St. John's University Coach Lou Carnesecca was very close with Sarachek, and credits him with being one of the biggest influences on his career. In Carnesecca's 1988 autobiography, he wrote 6 full pages about his friendship and admiration for Red and credits Red with being the biggest influence on his philosophies on coaching offense.
"He's one of my mentors," Carnesecca told MacsLive last March. "I can't think of any man who has had more influence on coaching basketball to the City of New York or anywhere in the country.
"He had the ability to simplify things, to bring it down to its most component parts, and that's why he was such a great teacher."
Carnesecca is not alone. Major high school and college programs around the country still use offensive sets coded "Red," the namesake of their innovator.
Sarachek could be tough on his players. His practices not only went late into the night, but were grueling as well. But far from alienating himself from his players, they grew attached to him.
"I pushed them very hard. I think they understand why I pushed them, because they're still with me. They call me every day. They come to see me everyday. That’s 50-years [later]," he said proudly.
Indeed, the entire Maccabees team paid pilgrimage to Sarachek at his home in Deerfield Beach, Fla., last year while they were nearby for a tournament. They stayed and talked basketball and life for over an hour.
His hard-nose style paid dividends on the court, as well, though not always translating into wins. His all-time record at Yeshiva was 202-263, despite often playing more talented teams.
"When he went to Yeshiva," Carnesecca said, "there were times when his players were not as advanced as [elsewhere]. Unfortunately, because of their limitation in talent, they didn’t go too far. They all became lawyers, doctors. But it was amazing how those fellas would move. They had a facility of moving the ball, of knowing the game. They always took good care of the ball. Maybe they didn't make the shot – but they got the fundamentals right."
How would Coach Sarachek stack up against today's best coaches? "He'd be better," Carnesecca said without hesitation. "Give him the players, he would have been a killer."
As a coach, Red Sarachek's basketball lineage is now in its third generation.
"Anyone who played yeshiva basketball, New York or not, over the last 50 years, whether they know it or not, has been influenced by Red," said Dr. Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva and an assistant coach of the Macs. "He literally has thousands of grandplayers and grandcoaches."
He was known for his remarkably frank manner of speaking.
Recalls Carnesecca: "I once asked him, 'Why are you so tough on these kids?' And he said, "If the young men under you know that you are making a contribution to their wellbeing, to their welfare, you can do anything you want with them. You can be tough with them, because they know there's a sincerity there; that you're not trying to belittle them, but you're trying to make them better."
"He was the most truthful person I've ever known," Coach Halpert remembered. "That was the essence of Sarachek. He did what he thought was the truthful thing to do. And that's why he was so direct, so frank, and blunt. He didn't know any other way."
Halpert gave an example of Sarachek’s truthful nature that led him to pioneer another aspect of the game – increased integration of African-Americans.
"In the 1940's in the Eastern League in Scranton, Red started 3 black players. That was unheard of back then. But he did it because he was truthful. They were the best players, so he played them."
Gurock agrees: "There are three parts to Red Sarachek. A great coach; a better Jew; and an extraordinarily honest and forthright person."
Sarachek continued to coach top professional and amateur teams while at Yeshiva, winning three AAU championships and three ABL championships. But he never left YU, always feeling an acute kinship at the Jewish school. It was his identity.
"He loved Yeshiva. He loved to work with those kids," Carnesecca remembered. "He felt a certain loyalty to be with those kids because he saw [that in addition to college courses,] they were studying 18 hours of Hebrew a week. And then to come down and play basketball? They didn’t get there until eight o'clock; they didn't get home until one or two in the morning! He saw their great love for the game. I think he felt a loyalty to help these young men. They're not going to be NBA players, but there's no doubt that he helped them later on in their lives, with the way that he taught them discipline, to work for a cause. It was special; he was a special guy."
"He was a very proud Jew," Gurock added. "He had many opportunities to coach elsewhere, but felt it was very important to coach Jewish athletes."
Halpert recalled the same: "He was an extraordinarily proud Jew. He taught his players to understand that. Don’t be afraid to be who you are, in public. We’re talking about the late 40's and '50s, not post 1967. It was a different time."
But Sarachek's philosophy on the importance of the Yeshiva basketball program can best be described in his own words:
"The kids who are playing, they're doing it for themselves, and they're doing it for Yeshiva, and they're doing it for the pride of Judaism."
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