IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The football left Ziv Tal’s right foot like a screaming line drive up the middle in baseball, or like a shot — an absolute firecracker of a shot — in soccer.
It kept going, going, going …
Before landing near an end zone at Wolters Field in Highland Park, the football had traveled through a pair of uprights and just over a crossbar.
The kick’s distance: 55 yards.
Tal wasn’t a varsity football player last fall.
Wasn’t a varsity soccer player, though he does have a background in the sport, having suited up for Chicago Wind soccer clubs in some of his grade-school years.
He was just a flag football player messing around before a flag football game, having some outdoor fun before the start of his senior basketball season at Highland Park High School.
Witnesses can confirm the foot feat.
“I was shocked,” Tal recalls. “Crazy … that was crazy.”
Not so to others, including Giants basketball coach Paul Harris, who marveled at Tal’s ability to field a rolling basketball with either foot and use a slick maneuver to transfer it to his hands at hoops practices.
The young man owns leg strength and leg nimbleness.
“Pretty impressive,” Harris says.
But it’s what Tal, a 6-foot-1, 185-pound guard, did with his hands on basketball courts that wowed more than a few folks and earned him The North Shore Weekend/Daily North Shore Player of the Year honors in boys basketball for the 2107-18 season. The third-year varsity member averaged 16.5 points, 2.9 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.9 steals per game for a 15-win squad and finished his career with 1,113 points (No. 8 on the program’s all-time list), as well as second all-time among Giants in career three-point field goals (167), behind former Cornell University standout and 2011-12 Ivy League first-teamer Chris Wroblewski (HPHS, ’08), who made 211 career treys in a Giants uniform.
Tal nailed 72 three-pointers in 2017-18, putting him third in program history for treys made in a single season; Greg Gilberg set the mark (82) in 1994-95.
The Illinois Basketball Coaches Association named Tal to its Class 4A all-state Special Mention team.
“In addition to his stats, what stood out to me, to all of us, was Ziv’s competitive spirit during our practices,” Harris says. “He understood the importance of playing at game speed at practice and how well that prepared him and his teammates for games. He made us a better team with the approach he brought to every practice.”
Tal poured in 30 points in a win against visiting Maine West in early December. Among his other highlights this winter: hitting the game-winning shot in an overtime win against Andrew in the York Holiday Tournament; netting a step-back three-pointer, while being closely guarded, to beat the third-quarter buzzer in a win at Deerfield High School in January; and passing up an open three-point attempt to zip a pass to classmate Hayden Katz at the end of a Class 4A playoff loss to Warren last month.
Tal’s assist on Katz’s three-pointer was the final act of Tal’s fine prep career.
“Just making the extra pass,” says Tal, who scored 32 points twice in his junior season, once against Maine East and once against Maine West. “Got the ball to one of my senior friends. Cool moment for him.”
Tal shared point-guard duties with classmate Noah Shutan in each of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons. Shutan paced the Giants in assists (4.2) and steals (3.0) and tied senior Tyler Gussis for the team lead in rebounds (3.0) this winter.
Shutan played on Joy of the Game travel teams with Tal.
“What a lot of people didn’t realize about Ziv’s game was his quickness,” Shutan says. “He was quick, so quick, the quickest guy on our team, no question. He also was usually the best player on the court in our games. Great work ethic, too. Ziv was always giving 100 percent; we fed off his work ethic.
“That pass he made to Hayden in our playoff game showed his character,” Shutan adds. “Ziv is a very nice kid around school, friendly and respectful.”
Tal decided earlier this month not to pursue basketball at the next level. But that hasn’t kept him away from the game he started to play in the third grade. At least three times a week he competes in a four-on-four pick-up hoops game at a local LA Fitness.
“I loved the game of basketball at a young age,” says Tal, also a big fan of action movies and Fortnite, a burgeoning video game featuring a 100-player Player-vs.-Player mode. “Basketball was fast-paced, very fun, competitive. I’ve always loved running up and down the court. I remember my sophomore year, getting to go against bigger, stronger and faster kids. The adrenaline really kicked in then.
“I adapted. I had to slow the game down in my mind and do my best to play fast, while under control, and keep up with the rest of the players on the court.”
Tal became a better leader with each varsity season. He even got on his longtime friend, Shutan, a couple of times when Shutan chose to pass up an open shot too many times in a game.
“Ziv went up to Noah and told him, ‘You need to shoot,’ ” Harris said. “Ziv was thinking about the team, thinking about what was best for the team. Ziv had confidence in Noah, and his teammates saw that and appreciated that.
“Teammates,” the coach adds, “responded well to Ziv’s challenges.”
Tal’s next challenge — life without organized basketball — might be a tough one for the teen with the … D-I placekicker’s leg.
“I’ll miss basketball,” Tal admits. “I’ll miss the people — my teammates, my coaches, how the community united behind us during seasons. The coaches in our program made you a better player, a better person, with their emphasis on concepts associated with passion, humility, respect and unselfishness. The program sets the bar high every season, no matter what. It’s a special program.
“It was a gift, being able to play for Highland Park High School basketball teams,” Tall adds. “I’ll always have lots of great memories.”