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NBA lockout prompts a new motive for aliyah: basketball

Former Duke University basketball star Jon Scheyer, who will be playing pro ball for Maccabi Tel Aviv, at Ben Gurion Airport in Israel following his group aliyah flight, Aug. 30, 2011. (Sasson Tiram)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – Call it circumstantial Zionism.

There’s been a recent uptick in North American aliyah — of basketball players.

More than a dozen North American players have become Israeli citizens and joined professional Israeli basketball teams and second division squads in the past few years.

It’s not exactly a trend but the result of Israeli league rules, the NBA lockout and the dreams of one particular team owner.

With an Israel Basketball Association rule requiring at least two Israelis on the court at all times and a limit of four non-Israeli players per team — combined with a shortage of skilled local players — Israel long has turned to foreign shores for players. The United States has been an obvious source, with its share of talented Jewish American basketball players who can become Israeli on the court by immigrating under Israel’s Law of Return while keeping dual American citizenship.

This year, Maccabi Tel Aviv signed former Duke University standout Jon Scheyer to a two-year contract, and the Chicago-born Scheyer became an Israeli with his move here in August. One of his new teammates, NBA point guard Jordan Farmar of the New Jersey Nets, signed a one-year contract with Tel Aviv in the wake of the continuing lockout. Farmar is eligible for aliyah but has yet to make a decision about immigrating.

Then there’s Jeffrey Rosen, who purchased the Maccabi Haifa team in 2007 wanting to turn it into “Israel’s team for America.”

With U.S. tryouts in Florida for the past four seasons, he has sent more than 15 Jewish American players to Israel on aliyah, including this season’s Canadian guard Simon Farine, New Yorker Sylven Landesberg and former NCAA Division I guard Todd Lowenthal, who is playing for a second division team.

“For the Jewish American players, playing professional basketball in Israel is a unique way to connect to their heritage,” said Rosen, who wants to make Maccabi Haifa into a viable option for top Jewish American players.

The aliyah organization Nefesh B’Nefesh recently created a sports aliyah program to encourage athletes to move to Israel.

“Aliyah is aliyah,” even if it’s primarily for professional reasons, said Nefesh spokeswoman Yael Katsman. “Look, Scheyer was stuck because of injuries and he wanted to give it a try here. The process of aliyah is so much easier now, and Israel is better known as a solid marketplace.”

Scheyer had his initial NBA dreams dashed after an eye injury and a bout of mononucleosis.

“I was out all last year and then played in the NBA D-League, which was definitely not what I’d planned,” he told JTA. “Maccabi had been talking to me since the end of college and I thought it was a really unique opportunity.”

Certainly any basketball player wants to play in the NBA, says the former American-Israeli basketball star Tal “Mr. Basketball” Brody, who gave up his own NBA dreams 40 years ago when he played in the Maccabiah Games and decided to stay. But when circumstances prevail, Israel is considered a reasonable backup plan.

“Players of the stature of Jon Scheyer or Jordan Farmar would say that their first desire is the NBA,” says Brody, who initially played for Maccabi Tel Aviv and is now Israel’s goodwill ambassador. “Look at [former Maccabi Tel Aviv player] Anthony Parker, who’s now playing for [Cleveland] Cavaliers.”

But Brody, a native of Trenton, N.J., and an Israel Prize laureate — says the athlete aliyah trend is about the globalization of basketball.

“Anybody can play with anybody, so you have a Greek team with few Greeks, an Italian team with few Italians and Israeli teams with less Israelis,” he said.

For other players, an Israeli team may offer an opportunity not available back home.

Farine acknowledges that it was a professional decision for him to make aliyah because as a Canadian, he had less access to professional team opportunities than his American colleagues. And having an Israeli father, he can now make contact with an extensive network of relatives.

“Making a living playing basketball in Israel is better than an office job in Canada,” said Farine, who signed a two-year contract with Maccabi Haifa. “I hope to be living here and playing basketball for years to come.”

Maccabi Haifa’s most highly touted player, the 21-year-old Landesberg, is in his second year with the team and thinks of Israel as a home away from home. Landesberg, the son of a Jewish father and a mother from Trinidad, says he sees the same reaction when people find out that the 6-foot-6 guard with Trinidian features is Jewish. And now Israeli.

“They all get the same facial expression,” he says with a chuckle. “Their eyes get wide open.”

For an American Jew, playing basketball in Israel is about much more than the game, says Brody, considered Israel’s first modern sports hero.

When he first came to Israel in 1965, Maccabi Tel Aviv had never made it past the first round of the European championships. After successfully leading the U.S. team to a gold in the Maccabiah, Brody decided to give a year of his life to Maccabi Tel Aviv and help them advance past that crucial first round.

Israel won its first Euroleague championship in 1977 and has won four more since, making it to the finals 14 times in all.

“The conditions were primitive at the time,” Brody recalls of the early days. “We traveled around Israel, and I saw all that I had studied in Sunday religious school and saw people living it. I said OK, why not?

“I’ve watched the progression of Israeli basketball for the past 45 years and seen the impact on the American players that have come here,” continues Brody, who served in both the U.S. and Israeli armies. “It’s very positive. People have come to play basketball here but have wound up staying.”