From the Sweet 16 to the obscurity of pro basketball in Israel
It's wild to think that just a year ago my Cornell teammates and I were on center stage of March Madness; that's what happens when you are the first Ivy League team to advance to the Sweet 16 since 1979. Thanks to Cornell's historic success last March and my upbringing as a Jewish-American, an opportunity to play basketball professionally in Israel essentially fell into my lap. I had no illusions of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land coming close to matching the excitement of my senior season at Cornell. Still, I wasn't at all prepared for how far removed the cramped, cookie-cutter gyms of Israel are from a stage like the Carrier Dome, where I played my last college game.
When Allen Iverson signed a two-year contract with the Turkish basketball club Besiktas in late October, the first thought that popped into my head shockingly wasn't about how far the former perennial NBA all-star and league MVP had fallen. Instead, I immediately questioned whether "The Answer" knew what he was getting himself into. Though my brief two-and-a-half months spent living the life of a pro athlete in the Middle East have been fascinating, it certainly hasn't been what I expected when I signed on for this adventure.
It might seem like a stretch to compare the basketball experience of a future Hall of Famer playing in Turkey to that of a first-year pro out of the Ivy League playing for Ironi "Eldan" Ashkelon in the Israeli Super League. But the two situations are more similar than they seem. The common denominator of the two basketball abroad experiences: the ABROAD part. Though every country (not named the United States) with a professional basketball league has it's own perplexing/absorbing culture to become accustomed to, finding your comfort zone in the new surroundings is way more than half the battle to achieving success on the court ... whether you are playing in Istanbul or Ashkelon.
It's an adjustment that's nearly seven months in the making for me and started on August 15 when I touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport. As a Jewish-American making Aliyah (the name of the process for a foreigner becoming an Israeli citizen), my acclimation is not typical of the American basketball player playing overseas. There is hoop after hoop to jump through, both at home and in Israel to officially gain citizenship. Within minutes of landing in Tel-Aviv, I was escorted to the ominous sounding "Ministry of Absorption" inside the airport. A few forms and photos later, I was welcomed into the country as an Israeli citizen.
The most memorable and eye-opening "Welcome to Israel!" moment was my visit to the Israeli army headquarters in Beer Sheba. Every Israeli citizen is required to serve in the army. Most do so when they graduate high school, unless there are extenuating circumstances that delay or clear their army obligations. I was told upon my arrival that there was a very simple and standard procedure American basketball players making Aliyah go through to waive the army responsibilities inherited by other Israeli citizens.
In order to be cleared or get an exemption from the army, you first have to go through the daylong army placement system. This process, which makes a trip to the DMV look like a day at Disneyland, was a nightmare. First, I was interviewed. Among other things, they prodded me about my family history and asked me to read and write in Hebrew (which I hadn't done since I was Bar Mitzvahed at age 13). My interviewer then really caught my attention by asking me to whom I would like to give my pension if I die in battle. I was then given a physical, where I scored a 93 (out of 100) on the army's official medical exam. This meant I could choose any division of the army I wish to participate in (this is considered a huge honor for most Israelis). After a computer aptitude test, the two basketball team managers accompanying me saved me from near enlistment. If it wasn't for them and their somewhat pushy tactics (Israelis have a knack for making every conversation seem like an argument), I could have easily been drafted right then and there. The managers were able to receive confirmation in writing that I would not be enlisted for at least one year.
I'm used to living and playing basketball in a town where everyone seems to know each other. But while Ashkelon and Ithaca, N.Y., may be similar in size, the similarities end there. If moving to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for a whole year is a culture shock, then moving to Ashkelon is the equivalent of a cultural ice bath. In a lot of ways, Ashkelon is unlike the bigger, more citylike parts of Israel, and for that reason the cultural adjustment to living here is probably as big as it could have possibly been. But the small-town feel of Ashkelon is one of the characteristics I appreciate most. Whether it's because I always eat at the same five or six places or because I am the out-of-place-looking professional basketball player, people recognize my face, know I'm on the basketball team, and don't hesitate to talk with me about basketball and my life in their city. While I don't speak Hebrew well enough and most of them don't speak English well enough to carry on a conversation for longer than 30 seconds, it's nice to feel welcome in a really strange environment. Ashkelon basketball fans, like I'd imagine most fans of small-town/lower budget European teams, are extremely passionate about the team. They are everything a basketball player could ask for in a fan base: loyal, proud, and feverishly supportive. The fans, which are mostly made up of adolescent boys, travel to all away games, bang drums in the stands, paint their chests and blow vuvuzelas. They pack the energy and enthusiasm of European soccer into basketball arenas wherever we travel.
On the flip side, like most Israelis, they are also not shy about voicing their displeasure when things don't go well. It's wrong to call it rudeness, but some Israelis possess this unbridled honesty that enables them to ask questions and make comments that many Americans would keep to themselves. For example, after we lost our opening game of the season to local rival Ashdod, I returned home to order a pizza. Before handing me my food, the deliveryman greeted me with, "It's you! How'd you guys lose tonight? I was embarrassed to watch the game." That's pretty bold coming from a man whom I had yet to tip, but that is the reality of life as a professional basketball player. I am living in a small, modest Israeli town where the basketball team is a huge source of pride. Ashkelon can't offer the amenities or leisure activities of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, so after the beach, Ashkelonians can basically look forward to basketball and soccer. After I realized how uniquely important my team's success was to the Ashkelon basketball fans, I could appreciate how the "Blue Wave," as the fans are called, can be so loving and fiery all at once.
Outside of basketball, I love that Ashkelon is the most unlikely of cultural melting pots. I naively expected to meet exclusively white Jews in Israel, but in the entire country (and Ashkelon especially) that is not the case. There are sizable populations of Moroccan, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants in Ashkelon, the latter of whom aren't even all Jewish. My apartment building houses Spaniards, Frenchmen, Americans and Israelis. These different groups make living in Ashkelon more interesting, but it doesn't make it any easier to interact with my neighbors. For whatever reason, it's difficult to find people in Ashkelon who speak very good English. Many speak it well enough to understand a food order or a request at a store, but in a country that requires its students to take English classes starting in fourth grade, it's odd that many locals struggle with the language.
It is interesting though to see the differences in English fluency among my Israeli teammates. After years of playing European basketball, where English is the universal language, the veterans speak decent to very good English. The young players, on the other hand (and by young I mean younger than I am), are mostly local and have a hard time talking in English beyond basic basketball terminology. It doesn't make it any less fun to talk, hang out, or play with them, it just makes communicating both on and off the court more of a challenge.
Surprisingly, the most difficult adjustment of all has been the basketball. It's exciting to be playing alongside players I grew up watching (on my team are former NBA players Gabe Pruitt, Desmond Farmer and Tim Pickett) and with heady European league veterans, both Israeli and American, that can show a young rookie the ropes. What I wasn't expecting, however, was the intense pressure to win that comes along with being paid to play basketball. I've been watching the NBA nearly my whole life, so the fact that pro basketball is a business first is not some grand revelation for me. I've just never appreciated it until now.
Maybe it's because there are only 27 games in the Israeli regular season and only one game per week (so each game is scrutinized and magnified much more than a single NBA regular-season game is), but after each of my team's losses so far this season the stress level of each practice and workout was something I never came close to experiencing in my four years of college. With each loss, the chance someone gets cut or traded spikes, and with each win you can tangibly sense the relief in the locker room. After talking with my college teammates playing in Germany, Spain, and Italy, I know this impatience isn't unique to Israel. In college, losses were purely heartbreaking, but in the pros, a loss goes beyond emotion.
There are days when I try to imagine what it was like for Americans to play basketball abroad before the Internet, laptops, or iPods ... and simply can't. Without these luxuries, staying connected to home, family, friends, and what is going on outside this New Jersey-sized Middle Eastern country would be a challenge. Of course, for my American teammates and I, new media is a lifesaver: everyone is on Facebook now, Twitter is essentially a customizable e-newspaper, and Skype keeps me in touch with my family, friends back home and college teammates playing abroad without worrying about a huge phone bill. I probably couldn't have picked a bigger cultural adjustment than Ashkelon -- the entire city shuts down from 3 p.m. on Friday to Saturday night at sundown for Shabbat.
While the college basketball season is approaching its one-of-a-kind climax, the Israeli basketball calendar is lagging a couple of months behind. After our regular season ends on April 21, the top eight teams in the 10-team league advance to the playoffs. Unless things change in a hurry, I could be flying home sooner rather than later. Ashkelon is 5-17 on the season, sitting in ninth place, and three games out of the final playoff spot with five games to go. So, yeah ... a year removed from being near the top of college basketball I am at the bottom of Israeli basketball.
As a first-year pro that wasn't planning on a career in basketball three months before this all started, I couldn't be prouder of my individual performance and effort this season. The numbers aren't great or even decent (I'm averaging only 3 points, 3 boards in about 12 minutes a game), but this season was way more about personal growth than stats for me anyway. Plus, I can always tell my grandchildren someday that I led the Israeli Premier League in fouls per minute (like a wise man once said, "If you're not fouling, you're not playing defense"). There's a chance I will retire from pro basketball after one season, though I haven't decided anything officially yet. My ultimate goal for the future, whenever I do decide to call it quits, is to have a successful career writing about the sport. If I can write a college basketball blog while playing professional basketball overseas, I'm excited to see what I can do when I'm living in the same hemisphere as the games I'm covering.