Arguably one Israel’s greatest women’s basketball player is Liron Cohen. Playing in 9 countries, winning multiple titles and championships while featuring on the Israel National Women’s Basketball Team, Cohen will go down in the annals of history as one of the best ever. Who is Liron Cohen? Where is she today? What made her become an awe inspiring icon on the basketball courts across the continent? Well read on and find out in this intimate one-on-one with the Jerusalem born baller.
As we sit down in her Maccabi Israel office in Ramat Gan just outside Tel Aviv, Cohen’s face is glowing with delight. It’s been a year or so since she hung up her sneakers as a pro and I can’t help but notice the number 7 Israel jersey hanging on the wall. For a former star to be sitting behind a desk how has that transition been? “First of all you’re right. It’s totally different compared to waking up in the morning and going to practice, even from the way I dress to how I eat lunch. I played basketball all these years because I loved it and I still love it, but I got to a point where I achieved everything I had dreamed of and it was time to move on. I’m very realistic and I always knew I would not play basketball forever, I wanted to retire at the top of my career. I was never injured and nothing happened, so I understood that I was ready for the next step.”
Cohen continued the thought, “It’s still hard to stop doing what you know but I’m happy that I stayed in basketball with Maccabi Israel. Yes it’s true that I don’t run on the court but I’m there for the teams and I’m there to watch games, so I’m still doing what I love.”
The sparkle in Liron’s eye while hearing her talk about basketball, led us back to when she was just a child, “I played all kinds of sports when I was young, and if it had anything to do with a ball, then I was there. Basketball was something that I liked, equally to football. I always played, I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I just wanted to play. I played mostly with boys, Jews and Arabs, we played all the time. I remember my mom yelling and telling me to come back home because I was on the streets playing until 8pm. I did it because I loved it and I wasn’t even thinking about what I wanted to do.”
Playing for fun on the streets is one thing, but finding a way into organized basketball was another as Cohen continued on about her journey, “One day a coach by the name of Boaz Attire came by and asked me if I wanted to join a team, I said no at first. But the idea of wearing a uniform and a number on my back was something that I was interested in. I understood that I was good and maybe I could try a little more. Every day I dreamt bigger and bigger and I wanted to do and achieve more. I was lucky that Boaz saw the potential in me and that he came back and wanted me to join the team.”
However, a rough start was in the cards, “I’ll never forget the first practice. It was so intense that I threw up. Afterwards when we were driving home, my mom said are you sure you want to do this? Maybe you should stop if you don’t feel so well? Why do you need it? And I said no! I like it and I’ll try again. I eventually left Jerusalem to Raanana because I needed to be able to both practice and go to school without all of the travel involved. The school combined both education and basketball so I was able to focus on both.”
Having a supportive family is always key to succeeding. Cohen had that even though the family was not so into basketball, “No one played so it’s kind of strange since I’m the youngest to have gotten into it. My parents were really amazing they followed and supported me everywhere I went. I knew when I started playing that they didn’t think it was going to become as big as it became. But when it did, the whole family got behind me.”
As Cohen began evolving as a basketball player, she looked to some of the greats, be it in the NBA or in the Israeli women’s basketball league for inspiration, “I watched the NBA with my brother and we loved the Lakers and Magic Johnson. My coach also advised me to follow Liron Mizrachi who was playing in Israel and I really liked her style and I studied what she did. Years later, we ended up playing together when I got to Ramat Hasharon the season before she retired. This was a great achievement.”
Interestingly enough, Liron Cohen played the majority of her career in Europe and not at home in Israel. Her first stop on the continental tour was Greece, “When you think of Greece you think beaches; but I was all the way up north where if you would look at the map you wouldn’t be able to even find this place. When I first arrived we had some foreigners on the team but by the end of my time there, I was the only one left because they didn’t pay on time. But for me, all I wanted was to experience the dream of playing in Europe. In the beginning it was hard, however, when I look back it was well worth it.”
It could be daunting for a young woman to travel and play across Europe all alone and it could be a bit scary as well as Cohen said, “First of all, you are scared because you come to a new place and you have to adjust. But I must say that I was lucky because everywhere I went, everyone welcomed me from management to players and fans. However, it is hard to go to a new place especially as a Jewish Israeli even like Turkey during the good days.”
Anti-semitism certainly could play a factor both with a club team and with the Israel National Team, for a player and in Cohen’s case it would only be the latter, “I didn’t have any problems with the Club teams. But on the Israel National Team we did. There was a time when we played in Bulgaria during a period of tension and you could feel the difference. I don’t think that it added any extra motivation because an athlete doesn’t really need something to push them, because they are always motivated.”
Not only did Cohen play in Greece, but her colorful career took her to many other stops across the continent which also proved to be a ton of fun, “I enjoyed every place I played in because of the people, but if I had to choose the place I really loved the most, it would have to be Italy. I was up north and very close to Venice. I learned the language, enjoyed the food as well as the people, so everything was just great including my professional career. We played in front of a sold out arena of over 5,000 people every single game.”
There were more stops on the ride, “In Krakow we had a lot of people that came to see us play because we were right next to the Soccer team. In Slovakia, we had a lot of people at the games, but I think if the gym would have been bigger even more people would have come.
The popularity of women’s basketball may rely on location according to Cohen, “When I was playing with a team that was participating in a European competition, we always played in front of packed arenas and when I played in Poland, my team made the final four. The best teams in women’s basketball are in cities where there aren’t any men’s team and they are loved by their residents. If you go to Ramla, here in Israel, the fans would even come see us practice and we were everything to them. It’s very important to be in a place like that and I think that this is something that all of these locations have in common. I’m not so sure how successful a women’s team would be in Milan, or Rome.”
One of the most popular women’s league in the world in the WNBA and summer offshoot of the NBA. Liron never played in that league but she explained that she was very close, “The LA Sparks called me and asked me to come to their training camp, but they ended up cutting me. Part of the reason why players go to the WNBA is to secure a contract for Europe. A lot of players have come to play in Israel and they also make a lot more money here in Europe. On a professional level, I don’t think the basketball there is better than it is in Europe and they also play in the summer which is when the Israel National Team plays and trains and that was something that I wasn’t ready to give up. Playing for my country of Israel is everything to me.”
As we begin to wind down our time together, I asked Liron what she would say to a young girl who was interested in become a professional basketball player, “Basketball made me who I am and taught me so much. First of all, I worked and earned a living doing something that I loved. Basketball also taught me responsibility, discipline and confidence. It taught me a lesson for life, that if there is something that you love, then go for it; there is no reason that you won’t be able to succeed. You can achieve anything, if you do it right. I wouldn’t have discovered the world if I didn’t have basketball.”