Brothers Aaron and Nathaniel Liberman after a recent Valley Torah practice… (Gary Friedman / Los Angeles…)
Until entering high school, the only thing that made Aaron Liberman stand out on the basketball court was his growing 6-foot-5 frame. He was more of a celebrity for his height than a basketball player among his friends and family.
"The summer I entered ninth grade is when a former coach told me that I could make something of this if I really pushed myself," Liberman said. "That's when I started to realize I had some talent."
Now standing 6-9, Liberman has not only become one of the most successful players in Southern California, but the senior forward also has been a driving force in helping a small Jewish school get its first taste of athletic success.
Valley Torah, known primarily for its academic focus in Hebrew studies, will try to become the first Jewish school to win a CIF Southern Section basketball title when it takes on Bishop Diego in the Division 6AA championship game at Mater Dei High School on Saturday night.
The game is a big deal on the small, Valley Village-based campus, where many of its 86 students shoot hoops during their lunch break on an outdoor court that doubles as a parking lot. Basketball Coach Robert Icart expects 700 to 1,000 people will attend Saturday night's game even though it will be played hours after the Sabbath.
"Every student and administrator is excited about what we've been able to accomplish," Icart said. "These kids have worked hard to get where they are at."
Liberman, along with his sophomore brother, Nathaniel, has played a leading role in pushing the Wolfpack to the brink of a championship. Aaron is averaging 18 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.8 blocks; Nathaniel, a 6-5 (and growing) guard, is averaging 13 points and 2.4 steals.
The Liberman brothers' success hasn't come by accident. Icart says both have a strong work ethic that transcends the court and the classroom.
"I'd say Aaron, in terms of work ethic, is in the top 1% of the players I've coached," said Icart, who has worked with players such as Gilbert Arenas and Drew Housman in 17 years as an amateur club and high school coach. "I hope my son, who is 5 years old, some day is as committed to his faith, academics and basketball as Aaron is."
Of course, being a student-athlete at Valley Torah isn't easy. A dual Jewish and secular studies curriculum keeps students in class from 7:45 a.m. until 5:45 p.m. The basketball team usually holds practice from 8:30 p.m. until 10:30. The Liberman brothers say they typically do homework until midnight or 1 a.m.
Valley Torah's lack of a gym also complicates things. The Wolfpack have practiced or played at "at least" six or seven school gymnasiums this year, Icart said. They have even practiced on their parking lot court.
"It gets tough at times, but it's something we all love to do," Aaron Liberman said. "For the first time, really, we've made it a goal this year to win CIF, and everyone here is pushing to make that happen."
As for Aaron, he is focusing on graduating before embarking on a yearlong stay in Israel, where he will continue his Jewish studies. He is planning to play in some amateur tournaments while he is there and is making arrangements to train and scrimmage with the Israeli professional team Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv.
Although he has not received any basketball scholarship offers, several schools, including Stanford, Pepperdine, Princeton and Yale are planning to keep an eye on Liberman while he plays in Israel, Icart said. Still, his grades are good enough that he probably will be able pursue his double major choices of economics and political science at a major university of his choosing (he has a 3.4 grade-point average).
But all of that will temporarily take a back seat Saturday night.
"Shalosh means three in Hebrew, and we've had three goals this year," Liberman said. "Win league, win CIF, and win the [Yeshiva University] tournament that we're going to in a few weeks.
"I just play to win, and I'll do whatever it takes to help us win CIF."