Jeff Nurenberg

11 Nov 2019
ByAndy Cooper-Leary

As his 8th Grade basketball players arrive on court, ECFS P.E. teacher and coach Jeff Nurenberg greets them with either a handshake or a fist bump. The students dribble, drive, and shoot, ticking up the decibel level of the gym. Without a word, Nurenberg raises his right fist. The players stop and assemble beneath the basket, where they begin to clap, softly at first, then louder, until the gym rings with their thunderous applause. Practice has begun.

Nurenberg leads the first drill — a series of wall-to-wall sprints — with a single question: “Are you running as hard as you can?” An instruction to “stop the ball” sees players scramble everywhere in a full-court defense drill — Nurenberg doesn’t need to say much to keep his players focused on the task at hand. Afterward, when he assembles his team and asks them why one player was able to score a basket, he waits for them to critique their own performance — “hustle,” “he kept his head up,” “the defense didn’t protect the hoop” — before he finally weighs in: “That’s right.”

Growing up an only child, Nurenberg always valued commitment and community. His parents divorced when he was two, and by the time he was four, he was living full-time with his father. Nurenberg recalls that his father was fond of casinos, but he never went beyond his limits and paid all of his bills on time; in fact, his winnings provided the funds to start an accounting business, gain full custody of his son, and finance Nurenberg’s independent school education in Manhattan. “He instilled a sense of personal responsibility in conjunction with a love of sports and competition,” says Nurenberg.

Outside of home, Nurenberg found an extended family in the Little Red School House and Elisabeth Irwin High School, which he attended from Kindergarten to 12th Grade. “School for me was a sense of community. And I think I really needed that.” At LREI, Nurenberg met Larry Kaplan, his judo instructor and physical education teacher. Kaplan infused Nurenberg with a sense of what’s possible. “He made you feel like you could accomplish anything,” Nurenberg says. “He gave you confidence.”

In the summers, starting from when he was 13, Nurenberg came under the care of another tight-knit community: Camp Wah-Nee in Torrington, Connecticut. “Wah-Nee is built on the sense of community, family, and doing the right thing,” he says. “It was my second home.” Even after he was no longer a student, Nurenberg returned, coming on as a summer hire and growing through the ranks until he was 35. It was here that Nurenberg met former ECFS athletic director Steve Bluth, who recommended he read Leading With the Heart by Mike Krzyzewski, the celebrated basketball coach at Duke University. To this day, at the start of every basketball season, Nurenberg reads one of his two well-worn copies and thinks deeply about the winning philosophies — collective responsibility, communication, caring, trust, and pride — that drive Coach K’s success.

School for me was a sense of community.

When it came time for next steps beyond LREI, Nurenberg remembered how the adults in his life had made so many spaces feel welcome. Believing he could “make a big school feel smaller,” Nurenberg attended The Ohio State University, rather than the smaller schools recommended by college counselors. At OSU, he met Dr. Samuel Hodge, a graduate professor of adaptive physical education, who challenged him in the classroom and, later, while he was student teaching, “He pushed me to become better at my craft and to think critically about ways in which children learn best,” says Nurenberg. “He believed in me, and I felt it.”

Not long after starting college, when Nurenberg was 20, his father passed away from cancer. “I was devastated,” says Nurenberg. “My father’s unconditional love for me was apparent in so many ways. The excitement he would exhibit when I called him at work. His commitment to his job in order to provide for his family. My dad was a simple man, an honest hardworking man who exhibited integrity and character.”

The loss of a parent would derail anyone, and it might have thrown Nurenberg off his path. But a close relative stepped in to fill the void. Nurenberg’s cousin Gary Borress reached out to let him know he was not alone, counseling him on how to navigate life after college, offering solace and support. “He was that rock in terms of getting advice,” says Nurenberg. “I was very grateful to have someone like that.”

Nurenberg understands the importance of mentoring students who are searching for role models in their lives. For that reason, he treats his drills not only as moments of instruction, but also as moments of guidance. There are no abrupt stoppages in play, just sporadic words of adjustment and encouragement as he walks along the court. At the end of a drill, instead of sharing his thoughts, he asks for the players’ assessments and builds the lesson from there.

For their final task, Nurenberg challenges his 8th Graders to bounce and catch a basketball off the backboard without allowing it to hit the floor. If they can reach 25 repetitions and put the ball in the basket, Nurenberg promises to do 25 push-ups. The students make it to 24 before the ball bounces. Nurenberg, relieved of push-ups, raises his fist one more time, signaling the end of practice. He offers quiet words of encouragement and gratitude before his students exit the gym for the locker room.

Nurenberg understands that the simplest of encouragements are the seeds of confidence. It is this generosity of spirit that informs each of his drills and every one of his practices.