Israeli UConn basketball great to visit West Hartford
By Cindy Mindell
WEST HARTFORD – Three former UConn basketball stars will share their experiences on and off the court at “Bridges, Bonds & Basketball,” a Dec. 6 fundraiser to benefit Beth David Synagogue in West Hartford, UConn Health Center, and Hyuli healing center in northern Israel.
Beth David will host the panel discussion on overcoming challenges, featuring former UConn player Doron Sheffer, UConn Men’s Basketball Coach Kevin Ollie, and University of Hartford Women’s Basketball Coach Jennifer Rizzotti. The event will be emceed by Joe D’Ambrosio, WTIC and WVIT sportscaster and “the voice of the UConn Huskies” and will also feature Dee Rowe, a former UConn basketball coach, and Howie Schwab, a sports trivia expert who starred on ESPN’s Stump the Schwab show.
The idea came together over the summer, when Beth David’s Rabbi Yitzchok Adler was introduced to Sheffer through a mutual friend. While visiting Israel, Adler discussed the concept with Sheffer, who offered to participate and to approach Ollie, his former UConn teammate and longtime friend. A member of the event planning committee appealed to Evan Levy, assistant athletics director at University of Hartford, to invite Rizzotti.
“The participants are three very different types of people who excelled at UConn, overcame various social challenges, and have become role models for the rest of the community,” Adler says. “Kevin is an African-American who excelled at UConn basketball, professional basketball, and is now a college coach whose team won a NCAA championship this year. Jennifer is coaching at a time when our society is still working at overcoming gender obstacles in terms of professional success. They overcame these challenges and we feel that this is a very timely message – hence the name of the event. A subtitle would be, ‘Breaking barriers and reaching for the stars.’”
Sheffer first gained fame in 1993, when he led Israel’s Hapoel Galil Elyon to a historic victory in the Israeli League semifinals over Maccabi Tel Aviv. Following fellow Israeli Nadav Henefeld, Sheffer then played guard for UConn 1993 to 1996, where he became Big East Conference Rookie of the Year and the only UConn player with 1,000 points and 500 assists in three varsity seasons. He was selected in the 1996 draft by the Los Angeles Clippers, but chose to return to Israel and sign with Maccabi Tel Aviv. After four years with the team, winning four straight Israeli League championships, Sheffer retired to travel the world. Upon his return to Israel, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer and made both a recovery and a comeback to basketball, finishing out his contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv and then moving to Hapoel Jerusalem. The team defeated Real Madrid in the 2004 Union of European Basketball Leagues Eurocup final. He retired from professional basketball in 2008.
Since his time at UConn, when he received a book on spirituality from his mother, Sheffer has been on a spiritual journey, gradually becoming more halachicly observant and engaging in Talmud study. He and his second wife, Talia, have four children and live in Amirim, a moshav (collective village) in northern Israel founded in 1958 as a vegetarian retreat. Today, the community offers an array of therapeutic products and services – among them, Hyuli, the Sheffers’ home and healing center where Doron serves as life coach.
Sheffer is also a popular motivational speaker in Israel, and runs youth basketball clinics there and in the U.S. that impart Jewish values. He was in Connecticut over the summer doing just that when he made a trip to his alma mater, where he asked Ollie to participate in the event.
“I am happy we were able to work out the schedule,” Ollie says. “Whenever I am around Doron, he is such an inspiration to me. We are no longer able to be together on the basketball court, but whenever I am able to spend some time with him, it’s a blessing.”
Ollie began his UConn career as a freshman under former coach Jim Calhoun, playing in 124 games for the Huskies. After graduating from UConn in 1995, he played for the now-defunct Continental Basketball Association men’s minor league, then spent the next 13 years playing for 12 NBA teams. He was named head basketball coach at UConn in 2012, replacing Calhoun. After only two years in the position, he has been named the 10th best on ESPN’s current “Top 50” NCAA basketball coaches.
Ollie and Sheffer played together at UConn during the 1993-94 and 1994-95 seasons. During that time, they helped the team post a combined two-year record of 57-10 and a 32-4 record in the Big East Conference. The team won two Big East regular-season championships, and reached the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in 1993-94 and the Final Eight in 1994-95.
Sheffer and Ollie will be joined at the West Hartford event by Rizzotti, a 2001 Connecticut Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame inductee. Rizzotti starred on the UConn women’s team from 1992 to 1996, making the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine when the team won its first national championship in 1995 with a perfect season. After graduating, Rizzotti played on the Jones Cup team representing the U.S. in 1996, and played for three Women’s National Basketball Teams until 2003. As head women’s basketball coach of the University of Hartford Hawks since 1999, she has led the team to four America East Conference championships and four NCAA finals. In 2011, Rizzotti was named USA Basketball National Coach of the Year.
“I wanted to get involved in this event because the Hartford Hawks believe in supporting our community especially great events like this,” says Rizzotti. “This program is important because its will showcase the benefits of basketball beyond the court. Not only does the game bring people together from different backgrounds but it also gives back and can help people in need. This special event features three athletes from different walks of life, but all equally benefited from their UConn experience in mid-90’s and I feel honored I can give back to the school and our community in such a positive way.”
Ollie says that he is glad to help out at an event that will benefit so many people. “UConn Health is dear to my heart because of the great work they do and personally, because of the care my mother received there as she was going through her recent illness,” he says. “But this evening will also benefit the Jewish community at Beth David Synagogue and [Doron’s] healing center in Israel, so it will help many worthy causes. I’m pleased to be a part of it.”
“Bridges, Bonds & Basketball:” Saturday, Dec. 6, 7:30 PM, Beth David Synagogue, 20 Dover Road, West Hartford | Tickets/info: bethdavidwh.org / (860) 236-1241.
Doron Sheffer will also lead a basketball clinic for children in grades 1-8 on Sunday, Dec. 7, 3:30 – 5:30 p.m., 3:30-5:30 pm at the Mandell JCC, 335 Bloomfield Ave., West Hartford. Cost of the clinic is $35 before Dec. 4; $40 after Dec. 3; ($30 for JCC members). To register or for more information: (860) 236-4571, firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.mandelljcc.org.
CAP: Doron Sheffer during his UConn years.