Ally Landau likes to win. And at 5 foot 2 (and three-quarter inch), small for basketball by virtually any non-junior-league standards, she particularly enjoys taking her opponents by surprise.
“I like being the underdog,” she told NJJN at Golda Och Academy (GOA) in West Orange, where she is a sophomore. “People look at me and don’t expect me to be too good.”
But she is. When the varsity basketball season ended in late February, the diminutive guard’s 28.9 points-per-game average was tops in the entire state, according to nj.com, and she led GOA to a 16-5 record, good for second place in the Independence Division of the Super Essex League. Ally scored her 1,000th-career point on Feb. 5 against Newark Central High School, a 45-38 victory for the GOA Roadrunners.
“I was really surprised, really shocked,” she said of that moment, after which she got high fives from her teammates and a hug from her coach, Aaron Breitman. When asked if her mindset changed as she approached the milestone, Ally said she did the same thing as always: “I get the ball and go.”
But with an eye on playing on a Division III college team, she knows that setting records helps. “Obviously, it’s pretty cool,” she said. “At our school people don’t think we’re great, but 1,000 points [by] sophomore year — that will catch recruiters’ eyes.”
That certainly seems to be the case: With two years to go until graduation, she’s already heard from colleges.
Obviously Ally loves to play, but she said she also really appreciates the camaraderie. Of her GOA teammates, she said, “We’re best friends.”
This year she co-captained with her sister, Rebecca, a senior. They divided responsibility in an unconventional way. Rebecca motivates the team and gives the pep talks. Or, as Ally said, “She’s the team mom.” Ally’s role is to give instructions on the plays — though she admitted her teammates can’t always follow her instructions.
“I talk really fast and use code,” she said, referring to sports jargon. “I’ll say, ‘Set a down screen,’” a move to free up a teammate for an open shot. If they don’t get it, “Rebecca breaks it down for them.”
Ally is hard on herself and expects perfection in every game, according to her coach. “She takes her craft as seriously as any top person,” said Breitman. “So even when it’s not life or death, she makes it life or death. If we’re up by five, she needs to be up by 10 so we have a cushion or to get a teammate in the game.”
Once, after losing a game, she sent him an email, which he saved, apologizing for the loss. Even in hindsight, she thinks it was the right thing to do. “I always want to win, and that game I didn’t feel I played my best,” she said. “I could have done better.”
As good as she is — her coach believes she’s among the top 20 players in the state — it comes at a price. Ally remains focused on basketball while her friends have time to relax.
“Sports is Ally’s life,” said Breitman. “Most coaches do not see or understand the game as well as Ally does.”
Now that Ally is in between the high school season and her AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) season, which starts in the spring and runs through the summer, she’s able to partake in some “downtime.” For this competitive athlete, downtime consists of playing ball every day during lunch with the boys’ varsity coach Sandy Pyonin (a legendary local trainer for several NBA players, including current Boston Celtics star point guard Kyrie Irving, who grew up in West Orange and played high school ball in Montclair and Elizabeth); playing at least 30 minutes after school; and training for three hours in the gym on the weekends.
Because while she dominates the GOA games, it’s a different story in the AAU. “I don’t do it all by myself there,” she said. Sometimes she even warms the bench. “There are lots of good players.”
She credits her father with cultivating her interest in sports, and her mother for passing on her competitive nature. But the GOA curriculum has also played a part in the Roadrunners’ success. “Sometimes we speak in Hebrew to confuse people on the court,” Ally said. She got the idea from a team whose players communicated in Spanish during a game.
Despite all her time on the court and in the gym, she still finds time to study, having earned a 3.9 cumulative GPA. She said she hopes to attend a college that offers the kind of intimate atmosphere she’s found at GOA. Ideally, it will be a school with competitive sports, but in the offseason “I can have a regular college life,” she said.
But that’s still two years away, which is just fine with her coach. “She makes my life easy,” he says.