By Zachary Braziller
Chenfeld is as lethal on the drive as he is shooting from long range.
He stands 5-foot-9, brown-haired and light-skinned. He looks and acts like the typical Hunter College HS student, well mannered and academically gifted.
Put a basketball in his palm and the stereotype flies out the window.
Len Chenfeld breaks the mold at the Upper East Side school that was listed first among public schools in the nation for academics by The Wall Street Journal.
He is a phenomenon, a Jewish point guard that considers himself a basketball player before anything else. He has lifted Hunter to the top of Manhattan A East, leading the Hawks to a 14-0 record and a spot in the upcoming Manhattan borough playoffs, by averaging 21 points and five assists per game. He reached the AAU Nationals in Cocoa Beach, Fla., last summer with Fastbreak NYC, a team that included Lincoln guard Raymond O’Loughlin, guiding them to a 3-3 finish.
“A player like him doesn’t come around too often,” says Jesse Shapiro, his coach with Fastbreak.
Chenfeld hears the doubters all the time – from the opposition and the crowd. They see the color of his skin, his slight frame and don’t think much of him. It’s nothing new, he said, so it doesn’t bother him anymore. When he heads to a playground for the first time, he is rarely picked immediately.
“He is race neutral on the whole thing,” says his father, Cliff. “He’s smart, he understands there are very few kids (like him) who can do what he does, but … it’s not an issue for him. It’s an issue for them.”
It is a source of motivation when the catcalls come, for Chenfeld and Hunter. He has believers by the end of the game, after he has drilled countless jump shots and whipped past his man too many times to count. Those who’ve seen him before know what he can do.
“I love it,” Chenfeld says. “Everybody thinks it’s a joke, like we rig the stats. So many people write you up.”
Cliff had a feeling his son would be something special when it came to basketball. He had a ball in his hand at all times. His first word was “ball.” When they went to Knicks game, Chenfeld, then 3 years old, would bring his miniature orange and blue Knicks basketball and dribble around the arena. He went everywhere with it – to the grocery store, restaurants, school. The two, kid and ball, were seemingly attached.
“You wouldn’t see me without it,” he says.
The father wasn’t the only one who had aspirations for his son. Friends and relatives were struck by his skill at a young age, from the time he started playing intramurals.
He was a natural athlete, a five-sport star, enjoying baseball, basketball, tennis, soccer and hockey. He scored eight goals in his first game on the pitch in the West Side Soccer League at the age of 5 and was immediately promoted to the 7-year-old league. He was a star shortstop in baseball and talented scoring center in hockey.
Eventually, he stuck with basketball and tennis. He found baseball boring. He had to wake up too early for hockey and soccer never quite grabbed his attention.
Tennis remained until just recently, when Chenfeld opted to put more time into basketball, his greatest passion. Teaming with then-senior Max Segan, he won the PSAL doubles championship and the Mayor’s Cup crown, the spring tournament pitting the best Catholic, public and private players against one another. At one time he was ranked in the top 20 in the USTA’s Eastern Region for his age group.
“I’ve been obsessed with basketball since I could walk,” he says, explaining the decision.
Chenfeld has spent his entire adolescent life at Hunter, but it wasn’t always the clear-cut choice for high school. Several higher profile schools, Cliff says, Catholic, public and private institutions reached out to them via usually an AAU coach connected to the school. Chenfeld was interested in seeing what else was out there, but his parents, Cliff and Chana, convinced him to stay at the educationally elite school.
Cliff, though, said he never thought of uprooting his son, was worried about the lack of exposure. Sports are secondary at Hunter. But his son had a gift. So he created a highlight tape, one that can be found on YouTube . In the footage, he is shown splitting double teams, scoring inside and out, hitting 3-pointers on the move and finding open teammates through tiny spaces.
Chenfeld isn’t a fan of the video. Friends and teammates alike make fun of it. As is his way, he doesn’t like the attention. “It’s not that good,” he says, sheepishly.
“I felt I needed to make a video to get him more attention,” Cliff says. “He’s not playing against Lance Stephenson on ESPN.”
Boys’ basketball commissioner Mel Goldstein calls him the PSAL’s version of Steve Nash. Environmental Studies coach David Aronson likened him to John Stockton. Filmmaker Dan Klores, who played high-school basketball at Lincoln and coached North Carolina star Ed Cota at Tilden, said Chenfeld reminds him of former Duke star Bobby Hurley.
They’re all mighty compliments for a 17-year-old junior from the Upper West Side, particularly one who is such a fan of the game. He likes the Nash comparison, at least the Nash from two years ago who shot more. He patterned his game after the slick point guard. When Nash cut his hair and Chenfeld did, too, his friends thought it was another sign of admiration.
“I cut it,” he says, “because my coach was making me wear a head band.”
A passionate fan of the game and ardent Knicks follower, Chenfeld has drawn rave reviews from almost everyone who has seen him.
“He’s the best point guard in the ‘A’ division and it’s not even close,” says Aronson, whose Eagles lead Manhattan A Northwest, and lost to Hunter early in the year.
The coach also called him the best point guard he’s seen. FDR guard Jonathan Leduc, one of the doubters who was quickly proved wrong after Chenfeld lit him up for 37 points Jan. 17, reiterated that stance.
“He’s fast and he can really shoot,” Leduc points out, “So you don’t know what he’s going to do.”
Goldstein said Chenfeld could play for any team in the city, even at the Class AA level.
“He’s good enough and he’s tough enough,” Goldstein says. “He won’t quit against anybody.”
Adds Aronson: “This is the best team Hunter’s had in all my seasons coaching and he’s the main reason. The kid keeps them in all the big games. Every coach would want to have a player like this. And if you don’t, then you really don’t know about coaching – he’s that good.”
Klores, whose son worked out with Chenfeld during the summer in East Hampton, raves about his work ethic. During the summer, Chenfeld stayed around after marathon four-hour practices to hoist up 200 extra jump shots and 100 free throws. He gained 15 pounds of muscle in the last year.
When he is at home, he has a membership to the nearby Manhattan Jewish Center, where he can work out at any time. And it’s serious drill-oriented sessions, Cliff says.
“If he studies the entire day, if he doesn’t feel well, he will get to the gym,” the father emphasizes.
“He’s going to help a college team, big time,” Klores says.
The schools are very much aware. Several Ivy and Patriot League programs are after Chenfeld. He will be visiting many of them in the forthcoming weeks.
“I’ve been to see several Ivy League games,” says Shapiro, the AAU coach who won a pair of JUCO titles for Nassau Community College and went on to play at San Diego. “And he’s better than most of those guards as an 11th grader. I’m certain of that.”
That is for the future. Chenfeld is far more concerned with winning big at Hunter. The same goes for his individual statistics. He couldn’t say how many points he is averaging. But Chenfeld knows one thing: “We’re still undefeated in Manhattan,” he says proudly.
Cliff attends virtually every game, so he knows how his son is doing, how many points he is scoring and assists he is racking up. But if he wasn’t there, it would be hard for him to find out.
Chenfeld doesn’t boast about any breakout performances, not even the 37-point showing against FDR. The family wasn’t there for the game because they were attending a Barmitzvah in Chicago. Chenfeld was allowed to stay for the tilt and meet them there.
When he arrived, Cliff recalled, “he was mad that they lost. … He’s very comfortable with himself and he doesn’t need to talk about it.”
Neil Potter, in his second season as Hunter’s coach, already knew he was inheriting a fine guard when he took over last fall. As an eighth grader, Chenfeld led Hunter Middle School to the Region 9 championship. At tryouts his freshman year, then-coach Charles Sewell put him through a rigorous first workout – putting senior starter William Rogers on him to press Chenfeld for two straight hours.
“I killed him,” Chenfeld says, matter-of-factly.
He started immediately, averaging nine points as a freshman and tallying 19 and four assists per game as a sophomore. But, Potter says, he’s improved vastly this season, having added those 15 pounds of muscle, gotten quicker and more determined, if that’s possible.
He, Potter admits, is a major reason why Hunter had won the Manhattan B-2 division championship and advanced to the Class B quarterfinals before losing to eventual city champion Acorn, and should be one of the top seeds in the upcoming Class A playoffs. The last two years, the coach says, have been “once-in-a-lifetime years for Hunter.”
“It’s an enormous difference,” Potter goes on, comparing this season to last. “I can’t wait to see what he brings next year.”
He’s often at his best late, when the game is on the line.
“He’s angry if he doesn’t take the last shot,” Potter says. “And he makes it most of the time. He has that very innate thing where he knows how to win.”
“Our whole team feeds off him,” center Matt Schoener says.
Chenfeld is always looking to get better, to add range and accuracy to his jump shot, to refine his ball handling. Every movement – a shoulder fake or head bob, crossover dribble or hesitation move – are intended for a reason. It’s to gain an advantage, for that possession or the next one. Or even a quarter later.
“I can’t waste anything,” he says. “I’m 5-foot-9 – everything has to be perfect.”
Funny, that’s how many would describe Hunter’s point guard.