Michael Fallas is sitting in the last row of Newman Arena. Harvard just completed an improbable comeback, dealing Cornell a devastating loss. A final shot with five seconds deflated the arena, sucking the air out of the crowd that had been so raucous earlier in the game. The men of the basketball team slink out the stadium as Harvard players celebrate the victory.
Michael watches his son, JoJo, trudge off the court, toward the locker room, away from Harvard and the stinging defeat. He’s asked what he’ll say to JoJo when he sees him after the team emerges from the locker room. It’s the same message Michael has impressed upon his son for years.
“It’s not about the scoreboard,” Michael says. “It’s about the learning. No matter what you do, it’s all a learning experience. You’re going to learn more from a difficult situation than you are from an easy one.”
JoJo has never shied away from difficult situations that require hard work — his presence on the basketball team is a testament to that. After all, who expects a short kid from an Orthodox Jewish high school to play Division I basketball?
‘It was always like a balancing act’
In general, there are two types of student athletes. The first type focuses on sports; the other works hard to juggle athletics and academics. Cornell’s athletes tend to belong in the latter category. But JoJo has never been quite like everyone else.
JoJo falls into his own category: he balances sports, school and religion.
When he attended a small orthodox Jewish school in California, JoJo spent half the school day in Judaic studies and the other half in general studies. For most people, a nine-hour school day would be tiring — but for JoJo, the most exhausting part of his day began after school ended: basketball practice.
“It was always like a balancing act,” JoJo said. “With trying to figure out how to keep the religious aspects but also understanding that athletics was a very important part of my life.”
Balancing these three priorities involves more than just time management. Sometimes basketball would get in the way of religious rules. The biggest playoff games of the season were scheduled onFriday nights. As the team comprised solely of Orthodox Jews, his high school had to get special permission to avoid the Sabbath and play on Saturday nights.
“We’ve always had a real good balance,” Michael said. “We always try to fit everything in, religion and basketball and academics. I think the challenge is great for him to have a dual curriculum in high school and need to work on his body and his game. It’s the best thing for a young man to not have any free time and just keep working hard.”
Michael recalls one vivid example of JoJo’s hardworking personality. During his freshman year of high school, JoJo missed a free throw at the end of a game. That night, following the loss, JoJo went out and shot 500 free throws. “He was always very confident to shoot a free throw at the end of the game because of that loss,” Michael said.
‘Home away from home’
Even in an environment now where it’s not as easy to keep the Sabbath, JoJo strives to maintain his Judaism. Cornell’s basketball team is supportive of his religion, whether it involves providing a different team meal before games or understanding that JoJo doesn’t use his phone on Saturdays.
“He never stands out and says look at me,” Cornell basketball head coach Bill Courtney, said. “He never acts like he feels bad because he’s got to do something different.”
His dad said the team has done a great job of helping JoJo transition to Cornell.
“Religiously, I think he feels very comfortable,” Michael said. “Everybody knows who he is inside and all of his friends are really supportive and the program is very supportive and understands exactly what he needs.”
While Michael described the team as “home away from home,” it’s fair to say the makeup of his team at Cornell is decidedly different than what it was like at Shalhevet.
In high school, JoJo was a member of a team comprised of players just like him, Orthodox Jewish kids from Western Los Angeles. At Cornell, JoJo is teammates with guys from all parts of the country, each with different upbringings. Learning about each other’s differences has been a great experience and has contributed to the team’s camaraderie, JoJo said
Aside from differing backgrounds, JoJo also entered Cornell with a different style of play than his teammates. Courtney’s prototypical recruit has great length and possesses excellent athleticism.
“I don’t fit that model,” said JoJo, who unhesitantly admits that he lacks the athleticism that many of his teammates possess. “My freshman year was a little difficult because we play that type of [uptempo] game and I wasn’t really used to it and didn’t really fit in.”
And so, as he did with those free throws way back in ninth grade, JoJo set his mind to working hard to succeed.
“In the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, I realized that the way that I was going to contribute was with my outside shooting and with just scrapping on defense,” JoJo said. “I was going to have to play so much harder than everyone else. That’s where I kind of found my niche on the team.”
In JoJo’s freshman year, he played in just 14 games, averaging four minutes a contest. Last season, he tripled his average minutes played and saw time in twice as many games. This season, he’s averaging five more minutes per game than in 2014-15.
“He has shown improvement every year,” Courtney said. “He’s earned everything he’s gotten in this program. He’s become invaluable to our team and he’s a guy who works hard and kind of goes after what he wants.”
That mentality is clear when JoJo steps on the court. He’s a pest against opposing players, banging knees with opponents and diving for loose balls every chance he gets.
“When he was a freshman, he couldn’t necessarily compete defensively,” Courtney said. “Now he’s become — because of his scrappiness, his feistiness, his desire — one of the more bothersome defenders in the league, a guy that people don’t want to face because he will give you everything he has and he’ll lay it on the line.”
‘We weren’t talented, we weren’t tall’
While at Cornell, it took a little while for JoJo to find his place on the team, in high school, he had no difficulty finding his niche. Far and away the best player on the squad, the onus of scoring fell to him; he averaged over 20 points per game for his career.
“Our team was good for the school we were, but we weren’t talented, we weren’t tall. Everything was kind of run through me,” JoJo said.
JoJo, listed at a generous 5-foot-11, is the shortest player on the team at Cornell, but in high school, he was the second-tallest guy on the roster, oftentimes having to guard players six to eight inches taller than himself.
Because the team was not particularly good before JoJo arrived, basketball was never an important part of daily life at Shalhevet. The team struggled to draw fans to the majority of games.
But not always. The games against Shalhevet’s crosstown rival, Yeshiva University High School of Los Angeles (YULA), always elicited excitement from the small school and drew the most fans.
With dozens of parents of the players’ classmates in the audience, the games had a high profile. And because of this, all players had to wear yarmulkes while playing.
The matches held special significance for JoJo who originally attended YULA, an all-boys school, before transferring to Shalhevet, the less religious of the two schools. Many of his old teammates actually played for YULA.
In the 22 years before Fallas joined Shalhevet’s team his freshman year, Shalhevet defeated YULA exactly once The two schools usually play each other once a year but in JoJo’s junior season, the rival teams also duked it out for a bid to the championship of the Sarachek Tournament, Yeshiva University’s national tournament for Orthodox Jewish high schools held in New York City each year.
With his team leading by three with five seconds left, JoJo fouled out on when he intentionally fouled a YULA player beyond the 3-point arc. The guy he was guarding tossed the ball straight up in the air as JoJo grabbed him. The refs whistled that it was a shooting foul. JoJo, in disbelief, walked to the bench, watching the guy he fouled casually hit three free throws to send the game to overtime.
In the extra period, YULA again came back to tie and eventually win the game, sending them to the finals and Shalhevet to a long offseason.
“I’m sitting there, at a national tournament, in a full gym, just sitting on the bench thinking there’s nothing I can do,” JoJo said.
That game — the last of his junior season — inspired JoJo and his team to go all in over the offseason and work to become a better team.
“We got to do this, we have to finally figure out how to get over this hurdle,” Fallas said of team’s mindset following the game. “It was like enough is enough”
True to his word, JoJo and his team defeated YULA in the regular season the next year and went on to come out victorious in the Sarachek Tournament.
‘It’s a great lesson for life’
Michael has always been a huge supporter of JoJo’s basketball career. From coaching him when JoJo was young to traveling across the country for home games, Michael has tried to be with his son every step of the way.
Before the Red fell apart against Harvard, Michael is in the second row, cheering wildly for the team as shot after shot find the bottom of the net. He turns around to the crowded gym, waving his hands, getting the rest of the Cornell fans to chant, “Go Big Red.” Play resumes on the floor and Michael spins around, eyes locked on the action on hardwood court. Quick ball movement allows JoJo to get open and he calmly sinks a 3-pointer.
Michael pumps his fist and yells, “Way to be JoJo, way to be.”
He’s supported his son through youth basketball and AAU and at Shelhevet and now at Cornell. With only one more level of basketball left for JoJo, Michael completely supports him in his quest to play professional basketball in Israel.
“There’s nothing like it,” Michael says about the importance of basketball in JoJo’s life. “It’s a great lesson for life. It’s all the things that we want to give him.”
Like coming to Cornell, JoJo and his dad both realize that it will difficult. But, as Michael says, life’s about accomplishing.
“I believe that if you have a challenge in front of you, there’s a reason,” Michael says.