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John DiBartolomeo – Taking one step at a time

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John DiBartolomeo has been shooting lights out over the past two seasons with Maccabi Haifa in the beautiful city on the Carmel Mountain. Ever since landing in Israel after a couple of seasons in Spain, the Westport Connecticut guard has come to love the city and country he is in. “I love Haifa. Everyone that visits me here says the same thing. It was a good place to start in Israel. When you come to a new country Haifa is a perfect place to begin. It reminds me of where I grew up. An hour away from here I have Tel Aviv and when I was in Westport I had New York City an hour away. So I could always go in and then get back to the calm and quiet.”

Just this week, the University of Rochester product had one of those games where everything just went in as he dropped 28 points to help propel The Greens to a 101-70 victory in game two of the Israel Basketball League playoff quarterfinal best of five series against first place Hapoel Holon.

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“Winning in the playoffs is amazing but being able to respond after a frustrating first game double overtime loss proved we can play with them. There are no moral victories in the playoffs. I don’t believe in that. At the end of the day we lost by 4 in the first game and then won by 31 in game two but the series is still tied at one game a piece. We had to put game one behind us because game two was right around the corner and then you can’t bask in the big game two win. The next game is always most important. Right now it’s a 3-game series and the next game will be a deciding factor. This is what you play for and this is the best part of the year. Everything gets more intense and this is why you work months in order to be here.”

DiBartolomeo played consistent basketball all season long for the Greens but how did he end up playing in the Holy Land? “I came to Israel for basketball. I knew Willy Workman who plays with me on Haifa now, from when we both played Division III basketball. We all had similar circles in places like Amherst and Rochester and I had heard of him but we actually never met until the summer before I came to Israel when we played together in the Hartford Pro-Am. He really pitched me on Israel and said it was a good league and he thought that I could make an impact. That’s when I began to give serious consideration to Israel.”

Not just anyone can come and play ball in Israel. However, due to the Law of Return, John was able to acquire Israeli citizenship. “My mother is Jewish and her father grew up in a very Jewish setting. I didn’t know much about coming to Israel, but because I was Jewish my agent told me about it when I was in Spain and so did Willy. Alex Rosenberg who was at Kiryat Gat this past season also told me about it. I began to look into it and visited Haifa during my first trip to Israel which was a country that I had always heard about in the news and wanted to see it for myself. Haifa treated me really well when I came for tryouts, I had a good workout and as they say the rest is history.”

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As a youngster, basketball wasn’t the sport he thought he would end up excelling in, “I was kid that tried all of the sports and really enjoyed playing soccer. Basketball was tougher and I was a late bloomer. When I was in high school I focused solely on basketball and began to improve.”

Playing at Rochester was certainly a challenge but with his family’s support, DiBartolomeo was able to make the most of his opportunity in Upstate New York, “My parents have been most supportive and took me everywhere every weekend. They would travel to my games in Rochester all the time which was not easy to do because it was a 6-hour drive or 45 minute flight. We played all over the place and they were there along with my grandparents as well.”

Every child dreams of the playing in the NBA one day, but reality does set in, “The NBA was never really a target and I never thought beyond Rochester when I was coming out of high school. There was just a handful of Division III teams that were interested so I was extremely lucky that I was able to get into and play at a school like Rochester.”

Once at Rochester, the Haifa sharp shooter saw that his game was improving and thought that maybe there was a chance to pursue a basketball career, “I was getting better every year in college and I had a really good senior year, adding a lot of accolades to my basketball resume. I realized it was possible to potentially extend my career because someone reached out to me from Germany. I had heard that Spanish basketball was the best and my thought process was to go low and start at the bottom then climb my way up. I reached out to everyone that I knew in basketball including a player I knew from Connecticut by the name of Will Hanley who went to Spain. They recommended his agent and I went for an exposure camp in Madrid. I performed well enough to earn a contract. I signed with Zaragoza, a first division team on a 3-year deal who then on turn loaned me out and the thought process was that if in three years I was in the ACB I was doing something right. After a couple of seasons in Spain I began to look at my other options and Israel came up thanks again to Willy Workman and others.”

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Sometimes life sends you in all different places and goals can change as time goes by. But right now he has a clear target in sight, “My career is progressing, I’m challenging myself and I’ll see how far it can take me. When I was at Rochester I never dreamed that I would be in Spain. When I was in Spain, I never would have thought that I’d be in Israel after a couple of years. I’m just taking it one step at a time and seeing where I can go with it. I want to play at the highest level.”

So far his time in Haifa has been positive, “There are less distractions and I like to hang out and do what I do. My teammates and management have been great. It’s very professional here and they have taken great care of me. When I arrived at Haifa I struggled, but I felt that they were more than patient with me and saw through my play which I am very appreciative about.”

With his two year contract coming due after the season there may be others teams looking to obtain his services but he’s very content in Haifa, “When I look at any offer it’s a consideration. Part of me wants to play with a team that will be in Europe but it doesn’t necessarily have to be next year or in two years but when the opportunity is right. Money is important, but for me it’s not a decision maker at the end of the day I want to be where I fit in. I’ve seen players go to one place and not fit into the system. I like it in Haifa, I’m comfortable here and it’s a great situation. I’m very happy and I know that that’s not always the case at other places. All of these things bear a lot of weight on any decision.”

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When asked about what the secret ingredients are to his success he shies away from the question, “I have had a good year and I like to think that I work hard. When the opportunity arises you are going to play well. A big part of it is the system and I had a bigger role where I was able to get comfortable which is the key for any player. Be comfortable and be confident.”

His head coach Ofer Rahimi has had a wonderful season and right after the game two win, owner Jeff Rosen extended his contract, “Ofer and I have a good relationship. He was one of the first people who saw me in Haifa and when I came for a tryout he said that I had to be one of the guys that they should take a serious look at. That’s something you remember, something you don’t forget and something that sticks with you. He believed in me before anyone knew who I was and it’s nice to have someone in your corner.”

DiBartolomeo continued on about the man on the sidelines, “He’s an amazing person. He works extremely hard looking at film trying to find an edge against an opponent and I respect that more than anything. He’s a caring person and I wish nothing but the best for him. He deserves everything that comes his way.”

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One of the real characters of the Israeli league happens to be Haifa teammate Will Graves who currently is out with an injury, “I love him, he’s a real character. Will is missed dearly on both ends. He is still coming to practices and is in the lockerroom but when you are not playing it’s tough especially now that it’s the playoffs. Will always shows up in money time on the court. Some people get really down when they get injured, but Will is taking it differently and growing in different ways. He’s still doing his thing and is happy. He doesn’t want anyone to feel badly for him. He’s getting back in shape and using it as a chance to work on other things. When he comes back he will be even better. But I can’t explain how much we missed him especially in game one when we get caught on one-on-one situations. Will is one of the best one-on-one players in the league. At any point he can get his shot off and it would be a good look, so that’s something that we miss.”

Building a team is challenging in itself and the fact that there is usually so much turnover in European basketball makes getting a group of players to jell even that much harder. However, this past season, The Greens were able to find the winning formula, “I feel like Haifa always brings in good people that can mesh together and I think that they are all great people on and off of the court. One of the important things is that they see who the person is outside of basketball and what they can bring to the lockerroom.”

One of the reasons that DiBartolomeo has adjusted nicely is thanks in part to youth player Ofek Avital, “For over a year now I have had a girlfriend Stav who is from Haifa and I met her because her younger brother Ofek who is a youth player on the team had invited me for Shabbat dinner.” Of course his family has also made the transatlantic trip to visit John as well, “My parents have come to Israel and so has my brother and my grandfather who has been here 2-3 times since I’ve been in the country. But even now I have friends from college who are visiting that came in right before the game on Saturday. It’s great to see familiar faces and it helps make Israel more comfortable and a place where I am more at home.”

As we begin to wrap up, DiBartolomeo spoke about how pleasantly surprised he was so far with his time in Israel, “The growth and how comfortable I feel here has surprised me because now I have more friends and a girlfriend here. I can see myself here for a while. I’m very happy here and I know that it’s not something that you can’t take for granted, that you have a job and a place to work that you really like.”

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Sports back home means NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL, so with that in mind John listed off his favorite New York area teams, “Knicks, Giants, Yankees, Rangers.”

How about Rochester or Syracuse, “It has to be Rochester.”

What’s better, Falafel or Shwarma? “That’s a tough one, I’ll say Falafel because I have it more, sometimes I’ll take half of each.”

The gorgeous beaches of Haifa or the top of the Carmel Mountain and all of its beauty? “The beach. I was in Rochester for four years so I’ve got to go with the beach.”

Israel is an amazing country and DiBartolomeo couldn’t agree more, “I think that Israel is something that you have to see for yourself and it’s not something that you can make a judgement on until you have been here for some time and give it a chance. The first few months here were tough and the transition took time, but when I began to get out and know the people the more and the more I got comfortable, the more I liked it. Israel is a special place.”