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Coach Garson blogs about Maccabi Games experience

July 24, 2015

College of Idaho men's basketball coach Scott Garson served as an assistant coach for the Under-18 United States team at the 2015 European Maccabi Games, held in Berlin, Germany.

The Maccabi Games are an international Jewish sporting event, similar to the Olympics. The 2015 games held special significance as the first Jewish event of this magnitude held on German soil since the Holocaust ended 70 years ago.

Coach Garson blogged from Berlin as he helped Team USA to an undefeated record and the Gold Medal! Read about his experiences below, or click here to check out photos from the Maccabi Games.

August 5

Monday's final pool play game was our most difficult challenge of the tournament, as Israel came ready to play. They were tough, well-coached and had an outstanding left-handed scoring guard that played great all game long. After taking an early lead we had a seven-point advantage at the half. In the second half, we methodically extended our lead and ended with a 98-78 victory. For the fifth straight game, we dominated the boards, doubling the Israelis in the rebounding category. JJ Kaplan finished with 23 points and our sharpshooter, Dan Kuhnreich, added 20 points.

The Gold Medal Game was all that remained on Tuesday afternoon in Charlottenburg Sport Halle against the pesky Israeli team for the second day in a row. A coach is always concerned about a psychological letdown when your team has to play the same opponent whom you had previously beaten. We knew that Israel had played us tougher than anyone to this point, but our team was a very determined bunch. Watching other teams win and lose gold medal matches in various sports over the previous few days helped us all gain an appreciation for what winning a gold medal would mean.

From the opening tip we came out firing on all cylinders and showed why we were the class of the 18-and-under basketball division in Berlin this week. Everyone got into the action early, and we really shared the ball on the offensive end, as we had all tournament long. Our man-to-man defense was at its best, making it very difficult for Israel to score. We had a 29-7 lead in the first quarter, and the game was all but over at halftime. The final score showed a Team USA victory by the score of 83-62.

Receiving our gold medals and proudly displaying them around our necks and over our USA uniforms and shirts is a memory that we will never forget. Our team has been so much fun to coach, and the journey over the past two weeks has been remarkable with this group. Hardly any of us knew each other prior to coming together in New York on July 21, and now we were celebrating a gold medal victory with each other as if we had all been friends and teammates for years!

Following the completion of Tuesday's events were the closing ceremonies in a huge ballroom at the Estrel Hotel, which had served as our Olympic Village for 10 days. We joined together for another rousing rendition of Hatikvah, trading of team gear was rampant and the massive party was on. I got what I wanted, trading some Team USA gear for shirts from Israel, Great Britain, Argentina and the host Germany. A band was playing and a really impressive German singer and German rapper performed on stage. Athletes and coaches then slowly made their way back to the hotel lobby and dining hall, which had been transformed into a dance floor with a DJ playing all the top hits from American and European music. It was an awesome way for all 2,500 athletes, coaches and staff members to celebrate the end of the 2015 European Maccabi Games.

Being a part of these games over the past two weeks was, without a doubt, one of the greatest experiences of my life, both on and off the court. Basketball has truly blessed me with some incredible opportunities over the years. While I am sad that my time in Berlin with this team and delegation is over, I am already excited about heading back to my home in Caldwell, Idaho, where the best small college program and fans in the country await the beginning of a new school year and season. When our team arrives at the end of this month, we will hit the ground running and working hard to ensure we are ready to live up to the high expectations that we will embrace entering the 2015-16 campaign!

I have truly enjoyed writing this blog, and I appreciate you taking the time to read about my experiences while coaching abroad. Go USA! Go Yotes!

August 1

After winning our first game convincingly over Turkey on Wednesday, Team USA took the floor against Great Britain on Thursday evening. Our team once again jumped out to a big early lead and went into halftime up 45-19. Our man-to-man defense has really been the reason that teams cannot stay in the game with us as we are creating an enormous amount of transition baskets off of turnovers. The Brits played hard to the finish, but we won by a final of 86-47.

The bus ride back to the hotel, however, really showed the true spirit of this competition. We took a joint team photo with Great Britain and then all got on the same bus. Our players and the British players spent the whole ride laughing together and listening to their favorite hip hop tunes, while the coaching staffs sat up front discussing the state of basketball in our respective countries. That's truly what it is all about here in Berlin, making new friends from around the world, sharing experiences and coming closer as a community.

We had a very quick turnaround playing Canada at 8:30 Friday morning. The departure from our hotel was at 6:20 a.m. to get to the arena! Coach Chaskin and I discussed coming out in a full court, man-to-man press, both to get our team engaged early and because we felt Canada would struggle with our pressure. Sure enough, our team responded extremely well and the game was under our control from the outset. We led 33-7 at the end of the first quarter and played our best game of the tournament thus far, beating Canada 109-50. Our best player, J.J. Kaplan, is getting better every game as he is playing with great passion but also great poise. He has definitely shown he is the best player in the 18-and-under division to this point.

With a 3-0 record, a win over host Germany on Sunday would lock us in to the Gold Medal Game on Tuesday. It is looking like we are on a collision course with Israel, which also is 3-0.  

With the Jewish Sabbath, Shabbat, happening from sundown on Friday night to sundown on Saturday night, there will be no games played Saturday. Following our game Friday, we took our team to the fabulous Jewish museum in Berlin. And on Friday night, we joined approximately 3,000 people at what will go down as the largest Shabbat service and dinner in recorded history. Once again, Jewish history being made in Berlin ... but this is the type of history we can all be proud to be a part of.

July 29

The past 2 days have been a whirlwind of events filled with all types of emotions. Yesterday we truly witnessed the highs and the lows of humanity and life. The day began at 8 a.m. as every delegation from all 30 countries loaded 15 buses and headed to Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp outside of Berlin. This was a labor camp set up by the Nazis where many people, both Jews and non-Jews, perished. Before touring the grounds, we all gathered into a room where we heard firsthand accounts from Henry Schwarzbaum, a 94-year-old Jewish German Holocaust survivor, about his time both at Sachsenhausen and at Auschwitz death camp.

Mr. Schwarzbaum was very detailed in his account of how his family was taken by the S.S., separated from one another and deported to concentration camps because they were Jewish. All of his family, approximately 30 people, were killed in the Holocaust. He was the only survivor. He discussed his life at both Auschwitz and Sachsenhausen, as well as the days after he was liberated. Mr. Schwarzbaum took questions from the athletes and answered them all very eloquently and honestly. He then joined us all for lunch before we toured the camp and held a memorial for those who had lost their lives. I was proud to meet him and take a photo, which I will be sending a copy of back to him in Germany upon my return to Idaho.

Following our long and difficult day at the concentration camp, we all boarded our buses and headed toward the Olympic Stadium grounds back in Berlin to prepare for the European Maccabi Games 2015 Opening Ceremonies. I don't know that I've ever felt such a 180° change of emotions in one day. When we entered the amphitheater filled with more than 10,000 spectators in our USA sweats and hats, it was an incredible experience. Later in the festivities all 10,000 people rose to their feet to sing Hatikvah, the national anthem of Israel, and it was one of the most moving experiences of my life. This was the first time that so many gathered in one place to sing that song in the history of Germany, and it took place on the same Olympic grounds where the 1936 Olympic Games were held and presided over by the Nazi regime.

Everyone was all smiles leaving the Opening Ceremonies knowing that the games had officially begun. Our team was chomping at the bit to play after a week of training camp and 3 days of touring. It showed as we made our first eight field goal attempts and started the game on a 20-3 run this afternoon vs. Turkey. All 12 players scored in a 112-43 victory, and now we will prepare for Great Britain tomorrow evening. The competition will only get better as we go, but I loved the way our team shared the ball and played so together in their first game. Go USA!

July 26

We arrived in Berlin, Germany this morning with our entire delegation at 8:30 a.m., and the Maccabi USA organizers had us going right from the start! We weren't going to worry about jet lag because there was too much to do as we soon arrived. After loading up the buses, our tour guide, Forest, began discussing the history of this city and our journey through Berlin began.

We drove by many historical sights over the next several hours, including a large part of the Berlin Wall that remains as more of a tourist attraction and reminder of the divisive political divide which Berlin faced in the many years following World War II. So much if this city is a reminder of war and the darkest sides of humanity, yet Berlin is a modern city that is trying to move beyond its ugly past now and show it no longer stands for what it used to.

Our delegation got out and walked through Berlin's Memorial to the Holocaust which is placed prominently in the middle of the city for all to see. We then headed to the Brandenburg Gate, where President Ronald Reagan famously stood and demanded, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." We saw the Reichstag Building which was a centerpiece for Nazi Germany and also a symbol for the Soviet Union claiming Berlin towards the end of the war.

The end of our tour took us to Platform 17. This platform was where the S.S. loaded thousands upon thousands of Jews onto trains heading to the concentration camps just 75 years ago. We held a beautiful memorial service recognizing many of the European Jewish athletes and families that were killed in these camps, many of whom medaled in the Olympics just a few years prior to their deportation. We also recognized the 11 Israeli athletes that were taken hostage and subsequently murdered at the 1972 Munich Olympics. It was chilling standing in a place where so many horrible things happened, yet this was an important reminder of why these games coming to Berlin hold such a symbolic importance.

Following lunch nearby, we headed to the hotel to check in and rest up for a couple of hours. Dinner was a joint meal at our hotel with the delegation from Great Britain. German ambassadors from Israel, Great Britain and the United States all spoke to the large gathering of athletes and coaches, along with German political representatives. Today we saw and felt very clearly that this experience over the next 10 days is about far more than competing for medals in our respective sports. These 2015 European Maccabi Games represent a victory for all of us just because we are able to be here on our own free will and are welcomed by the German people.

Coach Chaskin and I finished the day with a brief team meeting in our hotel room at 10:30 p.m., as we get our team focused again on basketball and the games. We will practice Monday and follow that with some more touring of the city. Opening Ceremonies will take place on Tuesday evening outside at Waldbühne, the Olympic Stadium here in Berlin, with 15,000 spectators expected to be in attendance. Until then, Go Team USA!

July 24

In 2009 I was asked by Bruce Pearl, then the head coach at the University of Tennessee, to be an assistant coach on the open division Maccabi USA basketball team for the 2009 games in Israel. Unfortunately, recruiting was so intense at the time, while I was working as an assistant coach at UCLA, that I had to decline. That team went on to win the gold medal. When Adam Chaskin reached out to me in April to see if I had any interest this summer in being his assistant for the 18 and under team in the 2015 European Maccabi games, I was thrilled to be in a position to say "Yes!"

What I did not know in April that I now understand clearly, is that this is shaping up to be a life-changing experience already. The 2015 European Maccabi games are taking place in Berlin, Germany. This will be the largest Jewish event in Germany since prior to the Holocaust and World War II. Beginning next week, we will not only be competing for the medal round against the likes of Germany, Israel, Turkey and other outstanding competition, but our entire delegation will be visiting a concentration camp and seeing firsthand some of the memorials in Berlin for those who died in Nazi Germany, most of whom were no different than those of us competing in this event.

Just like the Olympics, there will be a fantastic opening and closing ceremony which will take place at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin (built for the 1936 Olympic Games held in Nazi Germany). There will be many sports participating (swimming, baseball, soccer, wrestling, volleyball, etc.) and our U.S. delegation will be representing both the United States as well as the Jewish people in an event that will most certainly celebrate our freedom and existence.

For the past three days, our 18 and under basketball team has been in training camp in New York City. We have had as many as three practices per day along with several bonding experiences, which included attending a Yankees' game, as we try to implement offensive defensive of schemes and build a team. We have a very short time to accomplish these goals prior to leaving on our flight to Germany on Saturday afternoon. However, we have a wonderful group of young men that have been very attentive and excited to be a part of this special team. Our 12 players are all 17-18 years old, and come from all over the United States, including New York, California, Virginia, Maryland and Alabama.

As I get ready to leave the United States for this event, I’m certainly spending many moments in thought about how special it is to be part of a team that breaks every huddle with the words "USA!" I am so proud to be an American, and I am so honored to be able to represent our country in an international event. Basketball has taken me many special places throughout my life, including most recently to Caldwell and The College of Idaho. I am looking forward to where this great game will be taking me and our team over the next two weeks. I look forward to writing my next blog entry from Deutschland!