Jewish Day Basketball Star Eitan Chemerinski Stands Out on and off the Court

By Walker Freer
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 19, 2009

The biggest secret in one of the area's smaller private school leagues lumbers through warmups with a boyish slouch, under a floppy mop of hair. At 6 feet 9, Eitan Chemerinski has an impressive first step when he drives to the basket, a strong game in the low post and the court vision of point guards nearly a foot shorter than him.

Chemerinski's coach calls him "the best player you've never seen." That may be because his school, Jewish Day in Rockville, observes Shabbat, the traditional day of rest in Judaism, from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday. The fact that the Lions don't play on a night when most area teams are on the floor is one reason you may have missed him; another is that JDS plays in the Potomac Valley Athletic Conference, which is not typically high on college scouts' basketball radar.

"He is unmatched in his league," Terry McPherson, Chemerinski's AAU coach, said of his PVAC competition. "There isn't any kid there that was capable of stopping him."

Chemerinski is averaging 17.5 points for the Lions (22-0), who play tonight against Queen Anne (18-7) in a PVAC semifinal. The Lions' average margin of victory is 24 points, which somewhat skews Chemerinski's numbers because the senior often rests during the second half of blowouts. In a Jan. 21 game at PVAC foe McLean School, Chemerinski had 55 points in a 95-17 win -- and went to the bench midway through the third quarter.

Chemerinski towers over most of the opponents he sees in the PVAC, but he's not a center in the traditional sense. He plays the point in the 1-2-2 press and evades guards on the perimeter as easily as he posts up on the low block. The Lions run a four-guard offense, and Coach Matt Feldman feels comfortable with him anywhere in the set.

"I wasn't always this tall," Chemerinski said. "I was usually shorter relative to the rest of my class so I played point guard in middle school. I use a lot of skills I developed when I was younger. I can be a lot more versatile now that I can dribble and I can be more of an outside threat than if I had only been working on post moves."

Feldman said he would like to see his star be a little more selfish.

"Sometimes, the highest-percentage play might not be the right pass to the next teammate," said Feldman, who spent the previous seven seasons working under Paul DeStefano at St. John's (D.C.).

Next year, Chemerinski will have other options. His recruitment was somewhat limited, mainly because of the importance his family places on education. He chose Cornell.

"My parents' number one priority has been and always will be academics," said Chemerinski, who speaks three foreign languages (Spanish, French and Hebrew). He has also taken up Mandarin -- on his own.

"For him, really there were no other school choices than the Ivies," Feldman said. "He could have easily played in Division I in many conferences, but it was important for him to get the best education possible."

In the Chemerinski household, as far as priorities go, basketball is third behind religion and education. When those overlapped, basketball was often forsaken -- a big reason he didn't compete in AAU until last summer.

"For us, to lead an observant Jewish life was limiting from the basketball perspective," said Debbie Chemerinski, Eitan's mother. "The main reason why he never played [AAU] basketball [growing up] was because joining any of those leagues meant competing on Fridays and Saturdays."

Chemerinski played last summer on the Metro Sixers, attended the Academic Elite Camp and was able to participate in team scrimmages on recruiting visits to Cornell and the University of Pennsylvania.

"When I started playing AAU, the first few tournaments were really a struggle," Chemerinski said. "Just getting used to the speed of the game, the athleticism of the other players. I'm not used to it in the PVAC. But then as I started playing more and going to camps over the summer and then even playing against the Cornell guys and some of the Penn guys, I realized I can play at that level, it's just going to take a lot of practice and hard work."

McPherson, the Metro Sixers coach, stressed that taking Chemerinski out of his comfort zone was critical.

"What he gained by being with us is being exposed to other kids around the area, from different leagues, with different styles of play," McPherson said. "You got your inner-city kids playing, you got your suburban kids playing, and you've really got basketball players out there who, for lack of a better word, eat, breathe and sleep basketball. Whereas Eitan, this was of course part of his school curriculum."

Chemerinski has decided to forgo Shabbat during the season to play at Cornell, which plays most games Friday and Saturday nights. "I had to make some spiritual sacrifices," he said. "I knew that wherever I was going to go, I was going to have to make certain compromises and this was one I was willing to make."

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