It’s no wonder that Steve Sobel sees Jewish values as an inherent part of coaching. Growing up in Rockville Centre, Long Island in the ‘50s, he first played basketball at the Temple B’nai Sholom gym, a building project his father spearheaded.
Sobel, now 60 and living in Longmeadow, has played or coached basketball ever since, starting at the synagogue and on a backyard court, attaining All-America status. He currently works with top players on the UConn men’s team. His Judaism is never far from his work. “One of the reasons I’m involved with UConn is because they brought in players from Israel,” he says.
Long involved at the Springfield JCC, he teaches basketball to kids and was head coach of the Under 14 boys’ basketball team in the 2002 and 2004 JCC Maccabi Games.
This year, his son Ethan, a rising senior at UMass Amherst, was assistant basketball coach for Team Springfield’s 14- to 16-year-old boys’ team. The elder Sobel jokes that his son was “working for the competition.”
Ethan also assists his dad, who is head coach for the Springfield Slamm, part of the Greater Hartford Pro Am Basketball League. Last summer, Steve, Ethan, and the team led a basketball clinic for kids with cancer and their families at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford. Sobel is a consummate teacher. He originally intended to go into secondary education, but while studying for his masters degree at Hofstra University, a course on special education “lit up a whole new world,” he says. He taught at the Association for the Help of Retarded Children (AHRC) and continued his graduate education at Southern Connecticut State University. By 1978, he was principal of a school for special-ed students in Hadley, Mass.
“I always had a natural affinity for helping children,” he says. “I became very interested in understanding the different ways in which we learn. That taught me to accept all kinds of people.”
Sobel earned his doctorate in education from Pacific Western University and was soon appointed director of special education for the entire Hadley school district.
He was frequently invited to speak to fellow educators and others involved in the field. By 1987, the number of invitations was overwhelming, and Sobel decided to become a fulltime motivational speaker and coach.
In addition to sports teams, he works with groups throughout North America, mostly non-profit organizations, schools, and corporations, and also teaches at several local colleges.
“What I’ve learned from my dad is endless in terms of life and coaching lessons,” he says. “His greatest asset is dealing with controversy due to his outstanding leadership. His motto always is, ‘Don’t let the little things get to you.’”
Sobel has a special dedication to helping the next generation of Jewish athletes. “I believe that what goes around comes around,” he says. “I was given a lot of great stuff like tutelage and direction; I grew up in a nice house and was very fortunate, so I try and give it back. I talk to my athletes about making the right decisions on and off the court and taking pride in their Judaism.”
Ethan and his sister, Nicole, 24, have traveled to Israel with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, working with Ethiopian children. “I wanted to go because I love Israel and because I always wanted to do some community service,” says Ethan, who is president of Koach, the Conservative Jewish Group at UMass Amherst Hillel. “This opportunity was perfect because it brought two of my strongest interests together as one, and really was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”
After years working together with his father, Ethan decided to coach Team Springfield to try something new. “I knew that, for the first time, I would get to have some of my own reign apart from my father,” he says. “It would be a great way to test what I’ve learned and further my leadership skills.”
Sobel says he’s simply passing along what he’s been given by others. “I tell my athletes, ‘Coach Sobel believes in the power of mitzvahs,’” he says. “My kids teach me that attitude, my parents did, and some of it is inborn. We’re put on earth for a lot of different purposes, and to me, the most important question to answer is, ‘How did you teach kids to develop?’”