Bound by basketball

Lavoy Allen scores over Jeremy Pressman at the N.Y. camp where Pressman coaches.
Lavoy Allen scores over Jeremy Pressman at the N.Y. camp where Pressman coaches. (DAVID M WARREN / Staff Photographer)

The inside story of two outsiders' friendship.

Posted: August 08, 2011

Jeremy Pressman, a Modern Orthodox Jew, wanted to take his basketball skill to a new level, see how he fared outside the world of Jewish private schools, so he spent his senior year at Pennsbury High School in Bucks County.

Where he rode the bench, 13th man on a 12-man team.

Because he observes the Sabbath, Jeremy couldn't practice on Saturdays or play games on Friday nights. His coach told him, quite understandably, "How can I play you when others are practicing more and you aren't even coming to half the games?"

But one pretty good thing came out of his one year of Pennsbury basketball. His friendship with Lavoy Allen.

Lavoy, 22, is from Morrisville, although he lived in Trenton until he was 9. He is the son of a truck driver. In June, after a standout career at Temple University, he was drafted by the 76ers.

Jeremy, 23, grew up in Yardley, son of a cardiologist. He hopes to become a rabbi, though he just got back from trying out for pro teams in Israel.

Jeremy got married in June and Lavoy was a groomsman.

When Jeremy was "danced" over to inspect his bride - a ritual in an orthodox wedding - he did so on Lavoy's shoulders. "I just kept going up and up and up," Jeremy said. Lavoy is a 6-foot-9 power forward.

And last week, Lavoy spent a few days with Jeremy at a summer camp in New York state for Orthodox Jewish children, helping with basketball clinics. It was the first time in his life Lavoy ever said, "Great game, Shmuel!"

Growing into God

Jeremy decided he wanted to put God first in his life, and become an observant Jew, in sixth grade. This wasn't something his parents pushed. At first, he was half-speed. He'd avoid using electricity on Saturday until the NBA game came on in the afternoon. But now he loves the Sabbath, can't imagine living without it, a time to slow down, reflect, get closer to God.

Jeremy went through 11th grade at Stern Hebrew High School in Merion with 15 kids in his class. He transferred to Pennsbury, with 800 seniors, for many reasons, one being basketball. On the first day of practice, he recalled, "I'm just looking around feeling a little bit lost."

Lavoy was a star. It would have been easy for him to ignore the kid who wasn't going to get playing time, the only kid in school wearing a yarmulke. But Lavoy remembered when he moved to Morrisville from his African American neighborhood in Trenton. He knew what it felt like to be out of place and reached out to Jeremy.

"Once he came to work out with us," Lavoy said, "I didn't want him to feel uncomfortable in any way."

Basketball was the glue at first.

"Around that time was when I really started to become better," Lavoy said. "I just loved playing and Jeremy did, too, and we tried to play as often as we could.

"I didn't really have many friends growing up," Lavoy added. "I didn't go many places. Jeremy was really interested in becoming friends and we hit it off right away.

Lavoy developed respect for Jeremy's devotion to his religion, for the sacrifices he made. Jeremy admired how hard Lavoy worked to improve at basketball, and how decent a person he was. Lavoy does not see himself as religious. Jeremy disagrees.

"Lavoy is one of the most religious guys I know," Jeremy said. "He's not fake in any way, completely honest and open with everybody, a true example of a person that's outside what he is inside. And at the end of the day, the rest is details."

Jeremy, who played at Yeshiva University, had been trying for years to lure Lavoy to Camp Mesorah in Upstate New York. This summer, with the NBA lockout, Lavoy had time.

Lavoy taught layup, shooting and rebounding drills, and promised free ice cream to any 10-year-old girl who could make a shot over him. (No winners.) He began each clinic with a question and answer period: Shoe size (15), favorite food (macaroni and cheese), favorite color (blue).

He signed every sneaker, flip-flop, and hat they handed him and played 30 minutes in the rain with a coed group of developmentally disabled kids.

One, Malkie Lefkowitz, was wise enough to tell her teammates: "Everybody, let's give the ball to him," and they kept passing the ball to Lavoy. But he'd pass it right back, until finally Josef Jaffe hit a basket, giving his team a 1-0 victory.

Lavoy and Jeremy also played a little one-on-one. Jeremy, who can sky for 6-1 and easily dunk, kept trying to dunk on Lavoy and that just wasn't happening. Before playing, Jeremy removed his tzitzis, the undergarment with long fringes he wears - except when playing ball - to remind himself that God is always watching. "I don't want to sweat it up," he said.

Lavoy and Jeremy also made a skit, in secret, for the end-of-the-year camp video:

Jeremy lay on a cot. The nurse was about to give him an injection. "I can't promise you this will work," she said. "And it's very dangerous."

Jeremy was desperate. "I've got to get to the NBA," he said. "I've got to make it."

She covered him with a purple Barney blanket and injected the magic elixir. He started shaking, shaking, until finally he was still.

Cut. Resume taping.

The nurse shook him. "Jeremy, are you still alive?"

She pulled back the blanket - and Lavoy, in a yarmulke as the newly transformed Jeremy, rose slowly, astonished at his size, strength, and skin color.

"Baruch Hashem," he said, which translates from Hebrew as "Praise God." He blew a kiss to heaven. And as he disappeared out the door, the new Jeremy sang out, "I'm going to the NBA!"

Their lives are about to rocket in different directions. Lavoy leaves this month for France, where he will play until the NBA lockout is resolved. Jeremy hopes to play in Israel, and if not, will likely move there anyway for a while with his new bride, Alessandra, whom he met in college.

"No matter what," said Lavoy, "20 years from now we'll still be playing, in the 40-and-over league. We'll still be playing together."

"We'll play until we drop," said Jeremy.


Contact staff writer Michael Vitez at 215-854-5639, mvitez@phillynews.com, or @michaelvitez on Twitter.

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