Harvey Sheff, ex-basketball star at Yeshiva and “mensch with a capital M,” died of the coronavirus shortly after his college was concluding its best season ever

By Joel Alderman

The passing of Harvey Jay Sheff from the coronavirus was not only another statistic included in the list of former college basketball players who have met that fate, but of a man who was generally considered a mensch (an admirable and honorable person).

The 59-year old Sheff was a star 6-4 center who graduated from Yeshiva University in 1982. Yeshiva is a Jewish religious college for the “modern-centrist-orthodox,” but open to students of all faiths, and is located on three campuses in the New York area. It has been represented on the basketball floor over 90 years and Sheff participated during four of them, all under its legendary coach Jonathan Halpert.

He also played one season professionally in Israel for Elitzur Ramia, before becoming a marketing consultant, which was his occupation over the last 22-plus years.

At the time of his death, and for a long time prior, he was a resident of Kew Gardens Hills in Flushing, NY.

Sheff died while Yeshiva was winning

Sheff died March 31, 2020, at New York-Presbyterian Queens Hospital. His passing was almost simultaneous with the culmination on March 12th of his alma mater’s greatest season of basketball since taking up the sport in the 1930-31 season. This year the Maccabees won two games in the NCAA Division III Tournament before it was canceled along with all college sports by the rapidly escalating virus.

Sheff lived long enough to follow the team’s victories in the tourney, which he had planned to attend before the games were closed to the public and, of course, before he became ill. According to his sister, Karen, he still was able to follow the post-season online and was very disappointed when the rest of the games were canceled.

In his senior year, Sheff was captain and finished his college career with exactly 1,500 points, which at the time made him Yeshiva’s all-time leading scorer.

He had career highs of 40 points against Dominican College and accounted for 22 rebounds facing Stevens Institute of Technology. After college, he played a year of pro ball in Israel for Elitzur Ramia.

He is survived by his mother, Joyce Sheff, and two sisters, Karen Sheff and Bonnie Meiselman.

Tributes online

“The entire Maccabee family mourns the loss of Harvey Sheff, a true gentleman taken too soon by a horrible and indiscriminate viral pandemic. We will always remember him fondly. May his loved ones be comforted by his memory and what is sure to be an outpouring of love and respect.” -Yeshiva University

“What came across in at least equal measure to Harvey’s dominance on the court was that he was a gentleman or colloquially, a mensch (definition above).” – Ira Heller

A “gentle giant, a sweet innocent neshoma (soul) who only saw the good in everything and everyone. I never heard a word of loshon hora (derogatory) pass his lips. I have no doubt he is sitting courtside in Gan Eden (paradise).” – Shlomo Gottesman

“He was a real mensch with a capital M.” – Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld

Played with Danny Schayes

As a high schooler, he played for the Hebrew Institute of Long Island in 1977, the same year he was in the Jewish High School All-Star Game alongside Danny Schayes, who went on to the NBA and is the son of the late pro luminary Dolph Schayes.

Elliot Steinmetz, the 39-year old present coach of the Maccabees and a real estate attorney, wrote on Twitter that “Harvey was a wonderful human being who always offered encouraging and supportive words.”

Who are/were the Maccabees?

The nickname Maccabees is taken from the Biblical term for the Hebrew rebel fighters said to have overthrown the foreign occupiers of their land and to rededicate the Temple in Jerusalem. The word is shortened and employed by fans of Yeshiva athletics to simply the Macs.

An unbelievable season

Yeshiva University put together the best season in school history this year, ranked No. 8 in the final poll. Photo:

They have been playing basketball for thirty years but never had a season like the one just passed. In fact, very few colleges have.

After an opening loss to Occidental, they were not to lose again. They rattled off an amazing 29 straight victories, just two short of becoming Division III title holders.

About half of its players compete while wearing blue skull caps. Once a game gets underway they are hardly noticeable, being overshadowed by the talents that are displayed on the court.

Covid-19 and playing in isolation

After ending as the Skyline Conference champion they went to Baltimore for the start of the regionals and picked up some unexpected national publicity. Because of the escalating coronavirus the gym at John Hopkins was closed to non-working spectators, a fact noted by mostly all the sports media.

The victory over Worcester Polytech Institute is believed to be the first game played before no paying fans because of COVID-19. Yeshiva won 102-78, but it wasn’t tension-free. The tip-off was scheduled for 1 p.m. but it did not take place until 2:20, in order to check on whether any players showed medical symptoms. After the Macs won, they had to race back to their hotel to beat the soon to be arriving sabbath at 5:46.

Beating two opponents and the sabbath

They did get there in time, and then returned to the gym the next night after observing their day of rest. They faced Penn State-Harrisburg, scoring the same number of points as the day before in a 102-83 victory.

Thus, it can be said that in about 33 hours the Macs beat two opponents and the start of the sabbath.

The final buzzer was on the bus

On March 12th the team was on the bus heading to Virginia where it would face Randolph-Macon College in the quarter-finals, also known as the sweet sixteen. That’s when players and coaches received the news that there would be no more basketball this season, the same fate that would be met by all college and pro sports.

The tournament, as well as Yeshiva’s chance of a national championship, had ended. And less than two weeks later, so did the life of its beloved ex-basketball star, Harvey Sheff.

Former college basketball players who died from coronavirus

March 23, 2020 Lee Green, 48, St. John’s
March 23, 2020 David Edwards, 48, Georgetown and Texas A&M
March 24, 2020 Jonathan Duck, 50, Iona
March 29, 2020 Arnold Obey, 73, Wagner
March 31, 2020 Harvey Sheff, 59, Yeshiva
April 1, 2020 Ted Vartelas, 89, UConn
April 6, 2020 Marty Derer, 56, Rutgers-Camden
April 15, 2020 Matt Gras, 46, Siena
April 28, 2020 Charles “Duffy” Jernigan, 61, Eastern Ct.


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