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Israeli (Jewish) basketball on the rebound

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In 2005 when Maccabi Tel Aviv beat the Toronto Raptors the world took notice of Israeli basketball. While it might have only been an exhibition game and meaningless to the Raptors, it was enormous for Maccabi Tel Aviv and Israel. At the time Maccabi Tel Aviv was led by Anthony Parker, who got noticed during that game and eventually signed with the Raptors. Although Parker was not Israeli, or even Jewish, his ability to take an Israeli team to the next level has changed the game in our homeland forever.

Parker and Maccabi Tel Aviv won back-to-back Euro-league titles in 2004 and 2005. And since then several well known professional and college players have been migrating to Israel to play ball and get exposure while playing at a high level for Maccabi Tel Aviv. The list includes NBA player Carlos Arroyo, Dee Brown (Illini), Marcus Fizer (Bulls). Other Israeli teams have benefited from this as well landing players such as Roger Mason Jr., Ira Newble, Mississippi State PF Mario Austin, Illini forward Brian Randle, and Gonzaga guard Jeremy Pargo.

The success of Maccabi Tel Aviv and the influx of former and future NBA players has made basketball a huge success in Israel. Young Israeli children are growing up watching these great athletes and wanting to play the game.

In the past, we have seen great Israeli basketball players like Tal Brody who played for Illinois and was drafted 13th by the Baltimore Bullets in 1965. But Brody decided to move to Israel and play for Maccabi Tel Aviv. In 1984 the Seattle Supersonics in the second round drafted Yotam Halperin. He also opted to play in Israel. Then in 1996 Connecticut great, Doron Sheffer, was drafted 36th by the Los Angeles Clippers, but he went back to Israel and retired suddenly when doctors found a cancerous tumor, ending his NBA career before it started. There have been other attempts to make the NBA by Israeli players, including USC’s David Bluthenthal, but he was unsuccessful in getting a contract.

This year, finally, Omri Casspi was drafted into the NBA and has begun playing for the Sacramento Kings. Casspi is truly an amazing story and provides the Kings with a fast pace enthusiastic style of basketball.

Casspi is not the only Jewish basketball player in the NBA. Jordan Farmar of Los Angeles Lakers joins him, along with coaches Larry Brown (Charlotte Bobcats) and Lawrence Frank (New Jersey Nets).

There are role models in the girl’s game as well. Israeli and former Maryland great Shay Doron was drafted into the WNBA, but left to go back to Israel. Two-time Olympian, NBA Hall of Famer, and former WBNA player and coach Nancy Lieberman might not be Israeli but she was born Jewish. Also, current WNBA All Star Sue Bird is half Jewish (on her father’s side).

The future looks bright for the Jewish game of basketball. There are several college players that are currently playing at major D1 Universities. Yaniv Simpson (Monmouth) and Nimord Tishman (Florida) are both Israelis who are making an impact on the collegiate level. Today the game is also influenced by Jewish college coaches Bruce Pearl (Tennessee), Josh Pastner (Memphis), and Seth Greenberg (Virginia Tech).

I expect the game of basketball to grow in Israel and the Jewish world. In the US, new resources and outlets are being provided for young Jewish basketball players. There is a new Jewish sports overnight camp opening up called 6 Points Sports Academy in North Carolina. There are new high school basketball tournaments for Jewish high schools sprouting up every year, most notably the Red Sarachek tournament at Yeshiva University which features 20 schools throughout the country. And the Maccabi games, both for young athletes and adults, continues to grow and make an impact.

Although Maccabi Tel Aviv has not beaten an NBA team since 2005 (they lost to both the Knicks and Clippers this year) I still believe the future looks bright for Jews and Israelis in the NBA. While baseball might be the traditional Jewish sport it looks like basketball will soon give it a run for its money. Maybe we will even get our Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg of the hardwood.

And Let Us Say…Amen.

For more information about Jewish basketball (college and pro) check out www.thegreatrabbino.com.

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