For the love of the game: Hapoel Lev Jerusalem and Hapoel Rishon Le’Zion take to the court in the shadow of the war

As sirens blared across central Israel this past Monday night, professional basketball made its return to the Holy Land. The Women’s Basketball Super League took to the courts in five locations across the country to the delight of the aficionados who so dearly missed the game that they love.

Basketball at the time of war is a privilege as the Israel Defense Forces protect the land and do battle with the evil enemies of Hamas in the south and Hezbollah in the north.

But for many who had not had a chance to go out and do something enjoyable since Israel was attacked on October 7th this was that opportunity. Whether it was in Petach Tikva, Ramat Hasharon, Holon or Jerusalem, each location drew a number of fans that allowed everyone to escape from reality for a couple of hours.

Hapoel Lev Jerusalem – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

In the capital city, Hapoel Lev Jerusalem made their top division debut after earning promotion last season as roughly 100 fans descended upon the Malha Arena and filled in the lower area of the stands by the court. However, right above the fans was an entire section that featured posters of the hostages being held in Gaza in the hope that they will return to home soon.

As the teams warmed up on the parquet, smiles and excitement filled the air, drums began to beat and a small sense of normalcy began to appear. After the player introductions, a stirring rendition of Hatikva played and a moment of silence was held for those who had lost their lives and for those being held hostage as heads lowered and an eerie silence encapsulated the facility.

Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

From there it was game time as Limor Peleg’s Jerusalem and their opponents for the evening, a young Hapoel Rishon Le’Zion side coached by the wily veteran Ziv Erez readied for action.

If there were any butterflies for the first pro hoops league to get back to play, they certainly didn’t show.

Shir Tirosh – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Jerusalem featured a number of veteran players including Israel National Team stalwart Alex Cohen along with Noor Kayuf and scoring sensation Shir Tirosh who made her top league return after a number of years in the second league.

Rishon Le’Zion was made up of many blue-and-white youth stars from Amit Terner, Dorian Dahan Sujic, Hila Karsh and Mika Yanai who made sure to make their mark on the game from the outset. While the first half saw Tirosh put on a show with 17 of her 23 points to give Jerusalem a 35-32 lead after twenty minutes, Terner kept Rishon close in the third to head into the final frame with the capital city side clinging to a 3-point, 57-54 advantage.

Yanai and Yael Tenenbaum helped the the visitors to a 10-0 run to take the lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter, but Kayuf, Cohen and Neta Mishaar came right back with a 14-0 run of their own to go back in front for good and notch a 79-67 historical win for the franchise.

Hapoel Lev Jerusalem fans – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

The fans feted their heroes following the game as the players went to the stands to take pictures, sign autographs and exchange pleasantries.

However, that wasn’t the entire story of course, it was the fact that there was some sort of return to normal life, but the reality of the difficult situation still remains as Jerusalem Head coach Limor Peleg explained.

Limor Peleg – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

“We thought about basketball until we entered the gym and we saw the pictures on the chairs of the hostages which brought us back to reality. But we had to make a quick switch and we can’t let them win even though there were sirens right before the game. We are here for basketball which will help us get through it.”

“I have two Jewish Americans and it was even hard for them to come back. They went home when everything started but they love Israel so much, basketball and our team so they were willing to sacrifice a lot to come back. All the young girls, it was their first game in D1 so I am sure they had their butterflies including myself but hey pulled through. It was a big win.”

One of the Americans Peleg was referring to is veteran Alex Cohen who was heading back to her home in Ashdod following the game but spoke about some of her feelings on returning to the Holy Land, “We are all very lucky to be back. We have a great team and during the time away we were all itching to get back and be all together. To play in a game makes us happy and gives us something to think about.”

Alex Cohen – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Cohen was thrilled to see so many supporters in the stands including some of the players in tribe club’s youth department, “I’m excited about the season with all of the fans. It was also great to have the girls from the younger teams here as well, it’s one club, Hapoel Lev Jerusalem and it was great to have them here supporting us providing an atmosphere that we are able to feel on the floor.”

Jerusalem youth coach Adi Unger-Gelman expressed her feelings about simply being at a basketball game with her players in the shadow of war, “At the start it felt a bit strange because the heart wasn’t here and at times the head as well, but getting back to normal also helps to manage the situation and also helps those who are in the Gaza periphery.”

“We are back at practice and the youth league is supposed to get back to action in a couple of weeks. To be able to have a regular schedule of going to school and then practicing later on in the day is very important to get totally back to normal because right now we are still just partially there.”

Shir Tirosh – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

As of now there are no foreign players in the league due to the situation where normally there would be up to three per team. This however gives the Israeli players more minutes and young up and coming stars the chance to shine the 24-year old Tirosh said.

“The fact that there were so many Israelis and young players out here was just incredible. Everyone went toe-to-toe in a very tough game at such a historical venue and we came out with our first win.”

“We forget that these players are 23-24 and even younger,” Cohen remarked about the fact that there will be more Sabras playing significant minuets. “They have so much potential at such a young age. They will keep growing and we will see so much more from each and every one of them during the course of the season.”

Alex Cohen and Naor Kayuf – Photo Credit: Yehuda Halickman

Sometimes one forgets that professional basketball players play the game for a living, this is their livelihood and what they want to do most is be able to perform on the court. Just as an accountant, lawyer and doctor have their day to day duties and schedules, the same is true for Tirosh, her teammates and opponents.

“The last month has been crazy,” Tirosh said. “The situation in the country and what would be with the league, but it was fun to get back to this little bit of normal. We are well aware of the hostages and we held a minute of silence before the game which is super important. But I really missed the playing game that I love.

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