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A Counter-Culture Success Story

By Sully Carter & Silver Waves Staff , 08/19/20, 11:00AM PDT

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Yonatan (Johnny) Dan’s Breakout Freshman Season.

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We all love the showtime dunks, the flashy buzzer beaters, and the Cinderella stories that are experienced every season. This is not that kind of story. This is blue-collar; a story that shows you that hard work does pay off. No highlights, no dunks, no hype. Just hard work, perseverance, resiliency, and love. If at first you don't fit, you must not quit. 

In a culture of transfers portals, viral tweets, instagram stories, TikTok videos, highlighting highlights, and superstar hype, an interesting story arose from an unlikely location - a Yeshiva. A religious Jewish educational institution that focuses on study of religious texts.

Valley Torah High School in Valley Village is no stranger to success. Both in the classroom and on the court of competition. In 2011, Valley Torah became the first Jewish school to win a CIF title, led by CIF player of the year and John R Wooden award winner, Aaron Liberman. Liberman would go on to play Division I basketball. Fast forward some years later and in 2017 & 2018, the legend of Ryan Turell exploded. With a CIF Player of the year award, State Player of the Year award, a McDonald All American nomination, and a State playoff bid, Turell became a well known name in High School hoops. As a junior, Turell averaged a triple double. Alongside Max Leibowitz, Valley Torah would go on to win more than 30 games in 2017-2018 and Turell would go on to be a D3 All American, First-Team player as a sophomore, lead his team to 29 straight NCAA wins, and win the Atlantic Player of the year. Between 2016 and 2018, five Valley Torah players went on with an opportunity to play collegiate basketball, more than any other Yeshiva high school in the nation. That was supposed to be it for the little, one-hundred boy school in Valley Village that has no gym, less than ten classrooms, and a dual curriculum. The run was done. End scene. Back to the Beit Midrash (the Jewish study hall of a synagogue). Game over. 

Or you would think, right? 

No. Not so fast.

After losing nearly the complete roster following  a 2018-2019 boys basketball campaign, and two years removed from having a State Player of the Year, Valley Torah seemed to run out of its basketball glory. “I saw this as a rebuilding year, a year where we can let our seniors shine while establishing the right culture for the youngsters and build as a two-year process,” quipped Coach Lior Schwartzberg, “I was wrong.” After 28 wins and a state basketball tournament invitation in 2019-2020, Coach Schwartzberg can happily  admit he was wrong.

Coach Schwartzberg is no stranger to success; he has won Coach of the Year in the Heritage league for four consecutive years—a league that sent 3 teams to the California Boys Basketball State Tournament in 2020, including the 2020 CIF Champions, Santa Clarita Christian, and recent CIF champion, Trinity Classical Academy. Additionally, in the classroom, Coach Schwartzberg recently posted a 100% AP exam pass rate. “We want to establish a certain culture at Valley Torah off the court as well,” added Coach Schwartzberg. Culture always wins.

Describing the season, Schwartzberg explained, “As the year progressed, our rebuilding year seemed to be a revamping year. We found a new identity and we believed in who we were.” The Valley Torah Wolf Pack started off the year with an extensive winning streak that was not snapped until a double overtime game in January. Valley Torah would go on to win over 20 regular season games, a feat that has only been accomplished three times in school history and all three occurring since 2017. The school’s boys basketball team received an invitation to compete in the Boys Basketball State Tournament, also for the third time in school history and second time since 2017.

So what made a rebuilding year change its course? Enter— a freshman. Not only a freshman but a young man that will only graduate high school in 2023 as a 17-year-old. In the culture of the basketball holdback, he could have been a seventh grader last year and still maintained four years of high school eligibility upon starting school, if he chose to be held back. He did not. He enrolled in high school as a 13-year-old.

“Yonatan (Johnny) Dan was not supposed to be a focal piece this year,” Coach Schwartzberg reflected on the past season, “we had enough non-seniors that I thought were more ready to produce and excel on both ends of the floor in his position. I already had a trio of guards—two of which ended up garnering all league and all CIF players in 2020—coming back that had a year under their belt and I was (and still am) comfortable with them on the floor. I thought this would be a year Johnny would learn and observe David [Paz], Yoane [Bitton], and Benji [Dan], more than serve. It was a year to watch his peers and understand how hard it is to play varsity and what it takes. Again, I was wrong. I often am.” After struggling early on in the season, Johnny was benched; there were talks on if playing varsity basketball was the best idea for this young freshman. In today’s prep culture, that could be an immediate request to transfer, but not a word was said, no request was made, no phone calls with parents. Just silence, hard work and resilience.

Johnny Dan comes from a loving and competitive home. “There’s always been competitiveness between my brothers and me. That’s how we grew up going against each other,” said Dan. His old brother clawed for every possible minute as a sophomore on varsity the year prior. His younger brother is very involved, and at times, shows up to games as the team mascot. “We are always super happy for each other when one of us wins something. The support for our success has been fantastic with all the great mentors in my life,” added Dan, whose older brother Benji was an all-league first team player this past season, and all-league second team the year prior. His parents would do anything possible for their boys. His father would often drive from his home in Paramount  to attend as many Valley Torah games as possible in between shifts at work and he was no stranger to driving all over southern California for those Heritage League games (including teams in Lancaster and Palmdale). Dan noted, “My dad has always signed us up for sport leagues, taking us to games, and motivating us our entire life. My mother, Coach Lior [Schwartzberg], and Coach Kaplan [of the prestigious Yeshiva youth basketball program] have played huge roles in helping me to be a better basketball player and person.” His mother was a frequent fixture at her boys’ games and extremely supportive of their basketball adventures. There is no quit in the family. There is hard work, love, and strong foundational values.  

It was a disappointing start to the season. “[After being benched] I was a bit upset because I did not have a great [Memphis Cooper Invitational] tournament, and I felt like I let the team down,” added Dan, “I wanted to come back and prove myself, and really contribute to the team.” After being benched, Johnny worked his way back into rotation; he went from going scoreless in some earlier games, to setting a season high mark with a 36-point performance. His progression was slow but sure enough, Johnny found himself in the starting lineup. He started as the defensive player alongside his backcourt partners, snagging just short of three steals per game. Then he became a leading scorer as he started setting and breaking school records. As the season progressed, he played a crucial role in a push towards a State Tournament bid, and eventually the accolades arrived. All-League First Team in February and All-CIF First Team in March. That was it. Until July 24, when Johnny Dan won the John R. Wooden Award for the high school player of the year in Division 5. “I was excited and it got me motivated to work even harder. I was immediately thankful to my teammates, my coaches, and God that helped me get there,” Dan stated reflecting on the accomplishment.

The John R. Wooden Award for Player of the Year is one of the most prestigious awards in high school sports. Winners of this award have often gone on to play collegiate basketball and this year’s field includes two Team USA players, a Stanford commit, an Arizona State commit, a San Diego State commit, a UC Irvine commit, and a highly recruited 2021 prospect. All of these winners are high school seniors or juniors, which is commonplace for the award. But alongside them on this prestigious list is a 14-year-old benched freshman from a small Jewish high school with no gym, who was almost relegated to Junior Varsity. He holds no AAU affiliation or social media presence. There are no jaw dropping highlights, no showtime dunks, and no hype. Just hard work, perseverance, resiliency, and love.

If at first you don’t fit, you must not quit. You do not have to hold yourself back to have better opportunities at times. Not everybody needs to request to transfer or have a meeting with parents if the playing time was not what was expected. Sometimes, the best lesson is to learn how to work harder and prove your coach wrong with your actions. An attitude of gratitude goes a long way.

In a culture of transfers portals, viral tweets, instagram stories, TikTok videos, highlighting highlights, and superstar hype, an interesting story arose from an unlikely location - a Yeshiva. A little, one hundred boy high school in Valley Village that has no gym, less than ten classrooms, and a dual curriculum. End scene.

But start a new scene. Back to the hardwood; game on.