Maccabi USA wheelchair basketball player Peter Berry shoots during a USA vs. Israel game at the 2017 Maccabi Games.

Since 2009, Michael Rosenkrantz has championed the development of wheelchair basketball and other adaptive-sports programs in locations around the world, including India, Nepal, North Carolina and Arizona. Shortly after his arrival in our desert community in 2019, he linked up with the Desert Ability Center and began working with local adaptive athletes.

A year later, he helped launch a new adaptive sports initiative called Palms to Pines Parasports. In the year and a half since, the name has been changed to SoCal Parasports, and the organization—with Rosenkrantz as its executive director—has expanded its sports offerings in partnership with the Desert Recreation District.

Just recently, Rosenkrantz revealed that he is adding yet another prestigious title to his résumé: He’s been named head coach of the 2022 Maccabi USA wheelchair basketball team. He and his eight-member co-ed team will head to Israel to compete in the 21st Maccabiah Games on July 5.

“Culturally, I was brought up Jewish,” Rosenkrantz said in a recent interview with the Independent. “I had a bar mitzvah and all that kind of good stuff. I’ve never been to Israel, although all of my other family members have.”

Rosenkrantz said he became head coach of the team “kind of by default,” as one of the few Jewish wheelchair basketball coaches in the country.

“For a while, they were trying to get someone else. … I said all along that I’d do it, but they said, ‘Look, it’s your first year, and we’re not so sure,’” Rosenkrantz said. “But, in the end, I am the head coach. I’ll have an Israeli as an assistant coach, so it will be pretty cool.”

Stu Greenberg is the paralympic basketball commissioner of Maccabi USA Parasports, and a member of the Maccabi USA teams that have participated over the past decade in the international and quadrennial Maccabiah Games.

“The United States teams try to incorporate the cultural aspect and history of Israel,” Greenberg said. “This will be the first visit (to Israel) for many of these athletes, and they may never get back there, so we try to go over the history with them. This year, we’ll have a Holocaust program that my friend is sponsoring. We’re going to bring Holocaust survivors—and there are not many left—to a dinner on the Sabbath. They’ll speak about the Holocaust, and their life stories.

“The other countries only get (to Israel) a day or two before hand. They don’t have the means, or raise the money. … We’re the only country, I’d say, that emphasizes the cultural aspect as well as the competitive aspect. I mean, this is not the Special Olympics. We are trying to win—maybe not at all costs, but we’re trying to win. We don’t guarantee playing time. If you make the team, that’s an honor in itself.”

Maccabi USA is currently working on fundraising, with goals of $8,500 per athlete and $3,000 per coach as the minimum required to get each individual to the games. (If you are interested in making a donation, you can go to maccabiusa.com/21st-maccabiah-athlete-donate.)

Mike Rosenkrantz, head coach of the 2022 Maccabi USA wheelchair basketball team.

To emphasize how big of a deal the Maccabiah Games are, Greenberg pointed out that among the open class of athletes (not living with a disability), the U.S. is sending men’s basketball and soccer teams largely made up of Division I college athletes.

The cultural experiences are the focus during the Maccabi USA teams’ first week in Israel.

“The U.S. team leaves July 5, and arrives on July 6 for a thing called the Israel Connect program, which is a week of touring and a day of giving during that week,” Greenberg said. “So we will give back to a charity—like, we’ll visit a children’s hospital or a nursing home or school or orphanage. We’ll bring small gifts like baseball caps or T-shirts from a sports team. … There are over 1,200 athletes and coaches combined in the U.S. delegation … so the wheelchair basketball athletes will intermingle. They’ll have breakfast every day and make friends with the men’s and women’s open teams in basketball and other sports staying at the hotel with them. They’ll go on trips. For example, in both 2013 and 2017, we went to (visit) the Dead Sea and Masada. We went to the holocaust museum Yad Vashem and the cemetery there in Jerusalem, so that will definitely be happening again this time.”

Of course, that initial week will involve a good deal of athletic preparation as well. The wheelchair team is scheduled to hold practice sessions on five of those first seven days. Rosenkrantz believes that the skill and big-game experience of several of his players will be a critical benefit as they work to become a cohesive unit in such a short time.

The star of the team is Peter Berry, a member of a three-time National Wheelchair Basketball Association championship-winning team, who currently he plays with the University of Alabama wheelchair basketball team. His brother, Aaron—who shared in those championship experiences and now plays at Alabama as well—is an accomplished player. Rosenkrantz also mentioned the one female member of this year’s team, Freya Levy, who currently resides in England.

“The fact that Aaron and his brother, Peter, both play in college is really good,” said Rosenkrantz, who served one season as the assistant coach of the University of Arizona’s women’s wheelchair basketball team. “And Freya plays regularly, and she’s really good. They know what they’re doing, and we’ll kind of meld the other people into that. We’re going to play a really basic offense, and a basic defense, so we’ll make it happen and have fun doing it. Hopefully, we’ll bring back the gold, right?”

As the second week of the team’s journey arrives, the 21st Maccabiah Games will begin in earnest, with opening ceremonies on either July 13 or 14.

“The amount of games we play depends on the amount of teams,” Greenberg said. “For instance, if there are five teams, then we’ll play four games, (but regardless), the top four teams will play in the bracket round. These are elimination games, so No. 1 meets No. 4, and No. 2 meets No. 3.”

What personal and professional goals does Rosenkrantz hope to attain?

“Personally, I think the spiritual theme, like going to the Wailing Wall, (will be important),” Rosenkrantz said. “I think that we’re going to go to Masada, the Dead Sea, and we’re just going to take it all in. You know, I lived overseas for seven years, and I haven’t really been able to travel lately due to COVID.

“Professionally, it gets me back on the court coaching wheelchair basketball again. I’ve missed that a bit. We don’t have many athletes who use a wheelchair attending the adaptive sports we do six days per week. Over time, I really want to do wheelchair basketball again. I’m hoping we can form a team, either in the Coachella Valley, or in Riverside County (overall), so maybe this will be a launching pad for doing that.”

Rosenkrantz shared a vision that goes well beyond establishing a single team in our county.

“I know a number of high school (wheelchair-basketball-playing) kids who graduated from San Diego and other places in California, and they’ve gone to Arizona, because California has not offered anything yet—so, I’m looking to change that,” he said. “I’m looking to build a whole continuum from very young to collegiate and beyond. Having people be able to participate in adaptive sports is the bigger picture, and why I do this.”

Kevin Fitzgerald

Kevin Fitzgerald is the staff writer for the Coachella Valley Independent. He started as a freelance writer for the Independent in June 2013, more than a year after he and his wife moved from Los Angeles...