Florida Gator walk-on looks to contribute

By Lee J. Green
Deep South Jewish Voice

With his father being a jewelry sales executive in New York City and a former college basketball player, Florida Gators’ junior forward and Jewish athlete Michael Weisenberg knows a gem of an opportunity when he seizes it.

The humble and determined Weisenberg never played basketball in high school but gained the notice of current players on the reigning two-time national champion Gators during a pick-up game this past summer.

Forward/center Marreese Speights and forward Chandler Parsons encouraged him to try out for the team. There were some roster spots open since all five starters, as well as their sixth man, were drafted and/or signed by the National Basketball Association this off-season.

“At first I thought they were joking, but they told me they thought I had some talent and could compete for a spot. They said the team was looking for players with good attitudes and who were hustlers,” especially since that is how Head Coach Billy Donovan was when he was a player, said the 6-foot-7, 190-pound Weisenberg. “I always believe that you follow your heart with all that you’ve got. I am now living a life I never even really dreamed of a few months ago.”

He grew up in Long Island in a successful athletic, business and political family. Weisenberg’s grandfather was a star athlete and is an Assemblyman in Long Island. His father played basketball at the University of Denver. His brother is on his college golf team.

“Growing up, golf was really my game,” he said. “After the 9th grade my parents began sending me to a golf academy in Sarasota, Fla.,” where they now have a second home, which is just a couple hours from Gainesville and the University of Florida.

Weisenberg said in the 10th grade he started growing and began realizing some of his physical gifts for basketball. But he only played in middle school and pick-up.

“In New York City, most of the courts are outdoor asphalt so I was so excited about being able to play some pick-up ball in such a nice facility here on campus,” he said. “I have always had a love and appreciation of the game. But I am so privileged to be able to really learn the game from such great coaches and more experienced players.

“I think Coach Donovan is already one of the greatest coaches ever,” added Weisenberg.

Donovan also has some good praise for one of his two walk-on, non-scholarship players on this year’s roster.

“Weisenberg is a tough kid… he works his tail off in the post. He tries to rebound every time and he gives you everything he has,” said the coach. “I think from the walk-on perspective, that’s been pretty good.”

Weisenberg said he was raised Jewish — his father is Jewish, while his mother is Catholic. “We’ve always been observant of the cultures, traditions and holidays,” he said. “I take great pride in it and take (his Judaism) with me wherever I go.”

He is a member of the Theta Epsilon Pie (TEP) Jewish fraternity at Florida and spends holidays whenever possible with family either in Sarasota or Long Island.

“It has been a little bit difficult since we have practices and games through the holidays. All of my (TEP) housemates are out for break but we have a strong fraternity and family with our close-knit team,” said Weisenberg.

Despite winning the national championship this past April to cap last season’s back-to-back run, very few magazines predicted the Gators to even finish in the top 25 or challenge for the Southeastern Conference title, due to the team losing so many stars.

They are a young team, but several of those departing stars led the Gators to the first national championship when they were sophomores.

“It is such an honor and a great experience to wear the Florida Gators logo across my chest. I take great pride in being on the basketball team at the University of Florida which won two national championships in a row,” he said. “But most of us on the team this year weren’t on either championship team so we know we have every reason to be humble… and to learn as well as grow at every opportunity we can.”

Weisenberg has only logged a few minutes of playing time here and there, but you will never see him complaining. “The only thing better than wearing the jersey is contributing more during the games and earning more playing time. I am just so grateful, though, to have the opportunity to be on a team with a lot of players who have played basketball for much of their lives,” he said.

The Finance major hopes to go into business after he graduates. His father has already helped him to work several internships. “If I can say that I earned a degree and played basketball at the University of Florida, then certainly I will have achieved two things that to me are very important in my life,” said Weisenberg.