Monday, September 14, 2015

Basketball A Lifeline For Step It Up's Berdugo

Adversity can become a real demon, should you allow it to.

Instrumental in slaying adversity is believing in your journey.

 No matter the setbacks, no matter the devastating blows encountered along the road, the goal of defying the odds can never dwindle.

Seizing the power of competitive juices (while refusing to let his hoops focus falter) Step It Up's Yogev Berdugo has made basketball a lifestyle. 

Yes, basketball.

As in, the sport his closest friends told him to kiss goodbye over a decade ago.

So many, as Berdugo recalls, told him his basketball career was finished. They implored him to bid adieu to the game. 

They advised him to embark on his next journey, a basketball-free highway to the ensuing chapter in his young life.

Thankfully, Berdugo opted not to listen.

For Berdugo, the goal of plying his trade on the elite stage would never elude him.

As a 5-foot-9 point guard from an obscure, talent-lacking 50-student Jewish High School, doubt smothered his chances.

As a high school junior, Berdugo evolved as a playmaking point guard with a nose for the rim.

 A knack for carving through traffic and finishing on significantly bigger, stronger foes in the paint vaulted him to local folk hero status.

 His shot progressed through four years of high school. 

A kick-out shooter, the little kid with a big heart transformed into a high-efficiency scorer. 

South Florida began to take notice.

The staggeringly underwhelming competition and the lack of visibility, however, derailed his recruiting process.

Not many from Weinbaum Yeshiva High School (then containing 50 kids, it has since ballooned to 300) in Boca Raton are weighing their basketball stock on the Division-I market.

Berdugo refused to weigh any alternative.

"People would tell me, 'this is an impossibility, you're never going to play Division-I, why are you even considering it?' said Berdugo, who moved to the United States at eight.

Immediately upon assimilating to the U.S., Berdugo discovered basketball.

 The sport was instrumental in channeling his overabundance of childhood energy.

With a little help from Danny Herz, the former coach at American Heritage, Berdugo realized his dreams were still attainable.

He lacked Division-I interest, with nary a school in sight expressing interest. 

Berdugo can still recall all the little concerns.

He is too small.

 He's too skinny.

 Too unproven.

 Too much risk over reward.

Herz worked with Berdugo for hours, shelling out letters of recommendation and game film to schools all across America.

Like a cold-calling salesman under heightened pressure, Herz did everything in his power to sell programs on this high-energy, bone-thin little (135 pounds) Jewish guard.

Berdugo estimates that close to 100 Division-I programs were reached.

The late and legendary Jerry Tarkanian, then at Fresno State, was the lone coach to show interest. 

Still, there was no scholarship on the table.

The frustration compounded, though Berdugo would not let longtime dreams elude him.

No matter how unrealistic it appeared, Berdugo would not accept that Division-I basketball was no longer a viable option.

Berdugo received roughly 15 NCAA letters back.
Top-flight basketball breeding grounds such as Florida and Syracuse responded with letters of their own.

"They wrote letters which essentially said, 'Thanks but no thanks,'" Berdugo says, trickling into laughter.

Berdugo told his parents basketball would play a pivotal role in his college decision.

When Berdugo rattled off obscure Division-I schools in California as potential NCAA walk-on destinations, his parents immediately disapproved.

Their son was an honor roll student at a highly prestigious high school and he was considering less competitive colleges, because of basketball?

 It didn't seem right.

"There's no way you are going out there," Berdugo recalls his father, the late Elie Berdugo, saying.

Following a long and maddeningly frustrating recruiting process, Berdugo decided on Hofstra University in Long Island.

"One of the letters I received was from Jay Wright, then the head coach at Hofstra University," Berdugo explained.

"The letter explained that there was a chance for me to potentially walk on. That was good enough for me."

At the time, Hofstra was soaring up the mid-major ranks.

 The Pride had just culminated a 25-6 season with its second consecutive NCAA tournament berth. 

They were headlined by one of the most electrifying guards in the country in Speedy Claxton, the 20th overall pick in the 2000 NBA draft.

Berdugo went to work for September and October.

Engaged in long pickup runs and working on everything from his handle to coming off screens ready to pull-and-pop, Berdugo felt adequately prepared for a stiffer challenge.

A whopping 100 kids, each gunning for that sought-after walk on spot, arrived at tryouts.

Though Berdugo played to his strengths--creating for teammates down low, attacking the rim with a full head of steam, knocking down corner jumpers and converting turnovers into simple transition buckets--Berdugo was cut.

Yes, it was another agonizing setback on a journey seemingly filled with them.

Though initially disappointed, Berdugo's spirits were not dampened.

Berdugo recalls busting into the coaching office in a cold sweat the next day, explaining to a secretary that he needed to speak with coach Tom Pecora. 

Yes, Jay Wright was gone, bolting to Villanova. This presented yet another twist on Berdugo's wayward journey to Division-I dreams.

Waiting, waiting, waiting, Berdugo could feel the anticipation streaming through his blood.

"I basically told the coaches that although I got cut, I wanted to be involved (with the team) in any way possible," Berdugo recalls.

"I told them I'd be willing to do whatever just to have a position with the team. Basketball was my life at the time. It was really the reason I ended up all the way in Long Island."

The staff offered Berdugo a spot as a manager, which would entail everything from laundry detail to taping the court. Occasionally, he would have the opportunity to guard guys in drills.

Just the idea of being closer to his dream was enough to spark the sky-rising adrenaline in Berdugo, the lone athlete of over 30 first cousins in in a Moroccan-Jewish family which had only witnessed sports on television.

Though exasperated and a bit disheartened about being cut, Berdugo took his management duties rather seriously.

If Pecora or any of his assistants demanded a towel or a clipboard, Bergudo recalls running at full speed to get the task done.

That blurring speed, witnessed when he carved up defender after defender en route to a game-high 43 points at the Red Sarachek tournament in New York City, was still evident.

After practice, Berdugo would take the time to launch shots and run through the team's thick packet of plays, going full throttle. 

The coaching staff did take notice, though they were hesitant to take action.

A familiar face, however, would surface in the Hofstra gym as Berdugo continued his self-orchestrated workouts.

Launching jumpers until his arms died out, Berdugo's touch was recognized by John Corso, then Hofstra's Director of Basketball Operations.

Corso refereed at one of the private Jewish basketball tournaments Berdugo played in six months prior. He implored the coaching staff to give a good, hard look at Berdugo.

Two days later, Berdugo recalls fielding a phone call from Pecora. The high-energy manager, still giddy remembering the moment, was told to report to the coaching staff before practice the next day.

"They basically told me, we want you on the team," Berdugo recalls. "We want you in uniform, but you've got to understand you are not going to play at all."

Holding back tears, Berdugo nodded in appreciation.
 His basketball journey, with all the rising frustration in the rearview mirror, had ultimately been worth the grueling struggle.

Berdugo suited up against St. John's at the Garden. The Pride, then featuring a steady wave of local NYC talent, also played Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.

Two years later, citing a need to play meaningful minutes, Berdugo transferred to Brandeis University outside of Boston. Earning immediate playing time, he canned a 12-foot game-winner to beat Roger Williams.

Quarterbacking the offense and also utilizing his off-the-ball scoring, Berdugo became a key piece in the backcourt.

Today, the game still jolts him out of bed in the morning.

The head honcho of Step It Up Basketball, Berdugo's year-round system incorporates skill development, speed training, strength and conditioning, as well as character and leadership development.

He challenges kids to overcome the obverse obstacles, as he did with such high-order commitment.
He vows to affect student-athletes beyond basketball.

Berdugo's system emphasizes the off-the-court aspects of keeping the mind fresh and focused, helping sidestep the mental blocks which stall so many on their journey.
Currently serving as head assistant at Division-III Yeshiva University, a top-40 academic University nationally, Berdugo has found meaning in his long pursuit.

Never yielding to doubt or worry, everything has come full circle. In his life devotion, he implores others to sidestep adversity. He refuses to squander motivation through setbacks.

Now his life lessons and motivational tools are felt by thousands across the world.

Berdugo currently affects change through his eight-week summer basketball sleep away camp, catering to over 200 players from over 19 states and 10 different countries.