(The deli counter at a grocery store in Hertzeliya on a Friday morning)
Butcher: (To me, in Hebrew) Do you play basketball?
Me: (in Hebrew) Sure, I used to play in the United States.
Butcher: (Question in Hebrew I didn’t understand)
Me: (Searching my Hebrew vocabulary) Uh…
Butcher: (Says something to the next person in line)
Other Customer: (To me, in English) He says you are an American basketball player and he wants to know what team you play for here. Netanya?
Sadly, I am not in Israel to play basketball, and the only fifteen-footers I will shoot will be on the court across the street from my office. Still, it isn’t surprising to find Israelis on the lookout for Americans playing for teams in the holy land. With NBA owners and players currently at loggerheads over how to divide the league’s $4 billion in annual revenues and the NBA season consequently on-hold, I call your attention to Ligat HaAl (the Israeli Basketball Super League) as a good place to get your hoops fix.
Ligat HaAl was founded in 1954. The league’s teams also compete in the Euroleague and many of European basketball’s top tournaments. Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv has won the most Ligat HaAl titles, with 49 to their name. As evidence of Israel’s global basketball stature, Maccabi has also won five Euroleague titles, including back-to-back titles in 2004 and 2005.
While it is true that Israel’s number one sport – like almost every other country except America – is soccer (or “football” if you aren’t an American), the Jewish homeland has a long and storied history on the basketball court and its fanbase appears to be growing. I remember watching Israelis Doron Sheffer and Nadav Henefeld star for UConn in the 1980s and 1990s. In fact, when shooting around in my driveway as a kid, I pretended I was Doron Sheffer hitting last minute shots. Although he chose to return to Israel after playing at UConn, as a big guard with good ball handling and court vision, I have no doubt he could have played in the NBA.
Israel’s biggest basketball star, and current most visible athlete, is Omri Casspi. After playing in the Israeli League from 2005 to 2009, Casspi played solidly for the Sacramento Kings for two seasons before being traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers this off-season. As you can see below, he is famous enough to merit the Wheaties box treatment from Israeli cereals.
Although long established, Israel and America’s basketball ties have only recently received attention from many non-hardcore basketball fans. While still in America, I read a few articles touting Israeli basketball clubs’ signings of various American players for this coming season, and it piqued my desire to watch a little basketball while in Israel. The NBA lockout means more American players, especially those just out of college, are looking to teams overseas for playing opportunities. Under the Law of Return, American players who have a Jewish parent or grandparent are immediately eligible for citizenship and thus can bypass Israeli league rules regarding the number of foreign players allowed on each team, making them particularly attractive signings (http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/31/sports/seeking-route-to-the-nba-through-israel.html).
Israeli clubs didn’t sign any American superstars, but each team carries a few American players on their roster. A moderate NBA fan or college basketball fan will be able to recognize many names from standout performances in the annual NCAA March Madness tournament or from the lists of journeyman roster-fillers who make the rounds of NBA teams each season. The roster for league powerhouse Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv lists six American players, including former college standouts like Gonzaga’s Jeremy Pargo, Kansas’s Keith Langford, and Duke’s Jon Scheyer. (I wonder if being a Duke player inspires this much ridicule in Israel?)
Beyond these former NCAA stars, Maccabi Tel Aviv made the league’s most publicized offseason move when it signed guard Jordan Farmar, formerly of the New Jersey Nets and Los Angeles Lakers. Farmar was a solid NBA player, but from the highlight reel Maccabi posted, I would have sworn he was a perennial All-Star. Kidding aside, based on the level of attention Farmar’s signing brought to Israeli basketball, I believe it will have a positive impact on the game here.
Not only am I excited to watch a few games, but I’m also curious to see if increased interest in Israeli professional basketball will motivate more Israeli youths to pick up the sport. So far, I’ve only seen kids playing soccer in the parks and on blacktops. Yet Ipicture Israel as a relatively untapped source of at least some basketball talent.
During my time in Israel, I’m excited to learn more about the history of Israeli basketball. Maybe it will motivate me to get back out on the court for a little shooting, or even a few pickup games if I can find a few people who want to play.