Growing up in Huntsville, JJ Kaplan originally had no intention of attending college in his hometown. Born and raised in the second largest city in Alabama, he was prepared to begin his college search elsewhere, in pursuit of exploration and new opportunities. However, after Kaplan received an offer from the University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH) men’s basketball team that he simply couldn’t turn down, he decided to change his plans and pursue his basketball career there. Kaplan was drawn to the school’s historically dominant basketball program, and combined with its nationally ranked academics, he found UAH to be everything he was looking for. Huntsville is also where Kaplan found his strong connection to his Jewish faith, which continues to be an important part of his identity.
As it turned out, while it wasn’t easy at first, Kaplan made the right decision. The 6’5’’ guard redshirted his first college season, and was unsatisfied with his first years in the program, but had a breakout season during his redshirt sophomore year that instilled in him a newfound confidence and competitive drive. “I wasn’t highly recruited in high school.” says Kaplan. “It stung my ego a little bit. I really wanted to prove everyone at UAH wrong.” That season, he went on to start all 32 games for the UAH Chargers, averaging 13.7 points and 8.6 rebounds per game. He was also ranked second in the conference in field-goal percentage (52.8%) and recorded eight double-doubles. The same year, Kaplan was named to the All-Gulf South Conference Second Team and received Jewish Sports Review All-American honors, and was additionally named to multiple All-District and All-Conference Academic Teams.
The following season, Kaplan had continued success, starting every game once again for the Chargers. He led the team and conference in rebounds, and was 21st in the country with 282. He was named to the Gulf South Conference All-Tournament Team and the Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. After Kaplan assisted in the team’s conference championship win, the Chargers clinched an NCAA tournament berth, but unfortunately had their games cancelled due to COVID-19.
This year, Kaplan began his redshirt senior season battling an unfortunate shin injury, but returned in January and picked up right where he left off. He was named to the All-Conference team for the third year in a row, and became the 29th player in program history to score 1,000 career points, some of his biggest accomplishments to date. The Chargers entered this year’s NCAA tournament as the two seed, earning a first-round bye. Their current home became Valdosta, Georgia, one of the NCAA’s multiple bubble sites.
As the sun set in Valdosta on Friday night, Kaplan logged onto Shabbat services at his home synagogue in Huntsville. Making a weekly effort to maintain his strong connection to his Judaism stems mainly from Kaplan’s eye-opening childhood experiences. He grew up going to synagogue on High Holidays and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, but didn’t have any Jewish friends. After ending up in the hospital for over twenty days from a traumatic appendicitis, Kaplan noted that his relationship with God and with his Judaism was built and strengthened there. He had never experienced anything as painful, but was able to find guidance through his faith to persevere. Kaplan left the hospital with a renewed sense of belonging, and returned to the basketball court even more determined to prove himself.
While there has been a Jewish presence in Huntsville since the 1800s, the Jewish population currently is only about 750. At UAH, although he’s able to connect through virtual Shabbat and holiday services, he has found the Jewish community near campus to be quite small. “There aren’t a lot of Jewish people in Huntsville, so whenever I meet someone who is Jewish, they think I’m crazy because I get so excited,” says Kaplan. He says his most common reaction is, “‘Woah! You’re Jewish too?!” Kaplan enjoys tuning into his synagogue’s virtual services since he can’t be there in person, and is happy to have a way to still stay connected to his Jewish community while in the NCAA bubble.
A typical day in the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament bubble consists of much of the expected: Daily Covid tests, specified living quarters, and restricted access to the outside world. Teammates share in the longing for competing in front of fans, and hope to return soon in-person, when safe to do so. “The guys on our team, they’ve worked in front of no one, and now won’t be able to showcase their hard work in front of thousands,” says Kaplan. The Chargers put in extra work during all of the Covid shutdowns, in hopes of ensuring the team would stay active and united. “The gyms were all closed so we did weights in the backyard and were outside doing workouts at parks all summer long,” Kaplan says. He is grateful that they at least had the opportunity to show virtual viewers and a small number of in-person fans the results of all their dedication and effort.
The Chargers’ first game in the Round of 32 was a promising 73-66 win against Lee University. Kaplan had a strong performance, recording a double-double with 12 points and 11 rebounds as UAH advanced to the regional championship for the sixth time in program history. They were set to face the No. 1 seed Flagler College for their next game.
Unfortunately, after a tough 75-89 loss against Flagler, the Chargers incredible season came to an end as they exited the 2021 NCAA tournament. The bond that the team and its group of seniors was able to build this season was nothing short of extraordinary, and head coach John Shulman is proud of how unique his team is. “This is like a once-in-a-lifetime group of kids,” said coach Shulman in a postgame interview.
As his time at UAH slowly comes to a close, Kaplan is most grateful for his teammates and the opportunities the school has given him to pursue his dreams. “It’s such a special place. It’s not a big school, so my teammates are my brothers. They’re going to be in my wedding,” jokes Kaplan.
His sights now turn to pursuing his career abroad, which has been a childhood dream of his. As a younger player, Kaplan competed in the Maccabi games, a popular event he always looked forward to. “I loved being immersed in the culture,” he says. Kaplan intends to play basketball in Israel following his time at UAH, and decided it was the right path for him after speaking with a friend who pursued a basketball career there and flourished. He has not yet decided which teams he would like to end up on, and acknowledged that he might start out at the lower levels, but is confident he won’t lose sight of his goals. “I’ll work my way up,” Kaplan says. As he starts preparing for his next chapter, Kaplan will always look back fondly on the foundation for both his sport and his faith that he built in his hometown of Huntsville, Alabama.