GREENWICH — The children sat on the grass, counted down from 100, and then sang songs to await his arrival. When the tall, very thin man appeared in loose-fitting, spartan clothing, he quickly got their attention.
Doron Sheffer, one of the great players in UConn basketball history, spoke for about 15 minutes on knowing "how to win and how to lose." Then Sheffer took part in a father-and-son basketball game.
The kids, who had only a vague notion of who he is, were delighted. And their fathers, Huskies fans who knew very well who Doron Sheffer is, were over the moon.
Sheffer, 42, is on a rare trip to the United States, where he is lecturing and visiting Camp Gan Israel day camps, such as this one at Carmel Academy. He shares his basketball wisdom, which as Husky fans remember, is considerable, and his take-aways from a remarkable life journey since leaving UConn.
"Mainly, I want to teach them the value of courteous play," Sheffer said. "I call it basketball with values — courtesy and consideration. Because unfortunately, most of the time we tend to forget when we play on a competitive level. To bring sports to a place that is much more healthy and balanced for the youth — you can play the game and if you don't win the trophy, you can win the bigger game of playing with dignity and honesty and togetherness. That's much more important to me than just winning the game."
Sheffer, who came to UConn from Israel, had more than 1,000 points and 500 assists in his three seasons in Storrs, helping the Huskies to an 89-13 record. He left in 1996, then played on four championship teams in Israel before retiring unexpectedly at 28. Shortly thereafter, he was diagnosed with testicular cancer.
"It changed my life in a very positive way," Sheffer said.. "It became a gift for me, to take responsibility of my life, to ask questions, to have good habits and live life in a healthier and balanced way."
With a fresh perspective , Sheffer came back to play more basketball from 2005-08.
Today, he lives in northern Israel with his wife, Talia, and five children in an agricultural community overlooking the Sea of Galilee, hundreds of miles from the violence in Gaza but still affected by it. He walks for an hour each day among the cherry and olive trees there to "step away from the day-to-day world."
He studies the Torah and has traveled all over the world to study other religions. He gives motivational lectures and runs camps with his wife to encourage a healthier lifestyle. His autobiography, Annani — Hebrew for 'the answer' — came out this year.
"I'm playing a much bigger game, the bigger game," Sheffer said. "For me, being religious is being a better person, a better father, a better husband, a better neighbor. For me, it's constantly working on my values, being more humble, more patient, more happy with what I do. The Torah gives me a lot of tools and a lot of wisdom to reach the potential that is in me."
Sheffer will be in the New York area until Thursday. On Friday, he ventured up to Storrs to visit former teammate Kevin Ollie. "I thank God for bringing Doron Sheffer into my life," Ollie tweeted after Sheffer left for Greenwich. "He made me a better person."
Sheffer followed as closely as he could as the Huskies, now coached by Ollie, won the national championship, one achievement that eluded the Sheffer-Ollie-Ray Allen teams.
"Kevin and I have a special relationship," Sheffer said. "We learned a lot from each other and we have much respect for each other. I'm not surprised he is having success — not just winning the championship but the way he won it, the way he made it to where he is, that's a bigger victory."
He will be on his way back home before the Jim Calhoun Charity All-Star Game next Friday, but he catches up with his former coach. Calhoun visited Israel with UConn officials last fall.
"I take from everywhere I go, every coach I had," Sheffer said. "He demanded you take 100 percent from yourself no matter what you do. I remember, from being around him, trying to elevate my game and demand 100 percent from myself every moment, every game."
Sheffer is troubled by the violence that continues to plague his homeland, but he remains hopeful that peace will one day be given a chance.
"It can't help but touch your life," Sheffer said. "In the north, we don't feel the bombing as much. But we all hope for peace. Each and every one of us has to do what we have to do to help the situation. The soldiers are fighting, but I feel it's the obligation of everybody to try to take responsibility. We have to bring more light, more love, more humanity into our life. Obviously, if somebody comes to kill you, you have to defend yourself and do what you have to do that way. But it's also coming back to what I can do to be a better person and make the world around me a better place."