Dani Katz’s promise only took about three years to come to fruition.
Well, promise might be selling it short. In 2015, the then-17-year-old — with no shortage of confidence — sent a message that read more like a declaration.
Following his senior season of basketball at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, Katz texted his future coach at Yeshiva University to affirm his commitment to play for the Maccabees. In that message, he also vowed to lead YU to its first ever NCAA tournament appearance before he graduated.
It was a bold statement for any recruit to make — even bolder when considering that YU had never made an NCAA tournament in program history.
Said Katz, “I just knew I could take us there.”
Fast forward to February 2018.
Following a red-hot run in which YU won 12 of 13 games, the Maccabees squared off against Purchase College in the Skyline Conference championship, with the winner receiving an automatic bid to the Division III NCAA tournament.
Holding onto an 87-81 lead with the clock ticking toward zero, YU players and coaches launched into a celebration that could only be described as surreal. And rightfully so following a season of program firsts. First 18-win season. First conference championship. First trip to “the dance.”
Even more than a week after the historic win, Katz, a 20-year-old sophomore, still struggled to put the feeling of elation into words.
“We couldn’t even really process it,” said Katz, who at a burly 6-foot-4 started in all but one game for the Maccabees in his sophomore season. “It was so surreal that we didn’t know what to do. We just made history. There were no words to describe it. We were speechless.”
YU fell to York College in the opening round of the tournament in a game where the Maccabees trailed by a wide margin early and were never able to claw their way back. But the loss did nothing to dampen a magical season that, interestingly enough, didn’t begin the way one might expect.
The Maccabees won just five of their first 13 games to start the season, but received a major midseason boost when several key players either returned from injury or rejoined the team following study abroad programs in Israel. With added talent and depth, the squad began to hit its stride, reeling off wins and becoming even closer as a unit in the process.
“This is probably the strongest team together that I’ve ever been a part of — and I think every player would say that,” Katz said. “We are a bunch of brothers, a family. That’s one the main reasons we won the championship. We had such a strong bond, nothing could break us.”
Presiding over a cohesive squad is not something new to Katz, the youngest son of Baltimore basketball fixture Chaim Katz, whose resume includes coaching tenures at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Goucher College and Talmudical Academy. The younger Katz led the Warriors to back-to-back MIAA C Conference championship games during his junior and senior seasons at Beth Tfiloh. In both of those games, however, Beth Tfiloh came up just a bit short, most memorably in 2014 when Katz rimmed out a three-pointer in the final seconds that would have tied the game. It was a shot he replayed in his head for weeks on end.
Beth Tfiloh varsity basketball coach Ari Braun has a clear memory of the team huddle that preceded Katz being pegged for the game’s most pivotal play.
“From his teammates’ perspective, there was no question of who was taking that shot. It was, ‘Dani is getting the shot. That’s it,’” Braun recalls. “The most impressive thing about Dani is his leadership ability. He’s not [YU’s] leading scorer or rebounder, but he’s the leader of that team, and he was the leader of our team.
“And he does it all in a humble way. He’s not brash. He’s not in-your-face. He just has a natural way of leading people.”
Braun, in addition to closely tracking Katz’s collegiate progress, has attended several YU games in person, including the conference championship win. On top of Katz’s prowess as a leader, Braun notes there are other components of his pupil’s skillset that have transitioned favorably to the college game. Namely, his selflessness as a player, which enables him to function as the team’s top facilitator.
While many frontcourt players pride themselves on their knack for piling up points, Katz relishes the opportunity to set up his teammates to score.
“My favorite thing to do is pass the basketball,” Katz said. “I can have a game where I have 15 assists and 10 rebounds and not score a point, and be perfectly happy with it.”
Well, as long as his team wins, of course.
“He wants to win, and he’ll do whatever it takes,” Braun said.
It’s that mindset that already has Katz looking ahead to what YU can accomplish next year, though he’s still taking the time to reflect on what this season has meant and will mean.
“As teammates, we all thought about we are the only team that’s won a basketball championship. This was our year,” Katz said. “Even if I never win here again, I’m still the first to ever to win the Skyline Championship with my teammates. In 10 to 20 years when people come to visit, they’ll be like, ‘These are the guys that won the first championship in YU history.’”
Dave Snyder is a local freelance writer.