The 2023 FIBA Women’s EuroBasket is set to tip-off next week with the Drive In – Shlomo Group Arena in Tel Aviv hosting two groups, including all three of the Israeli National Team’s group games against Belgium on Thursday, Italy on Friday and then the Czech Republic the following Sunday.
The blue-and-white is in the process of making their final preparations, having played warmup games over the last couple of weeks against other teams that will be contesting the European championship. Head coach Sharon Drucker’s squad split a pair of games in Slovakia, followed up by a defeat in Athens to Greece and then splitting the last two exhibition games in Tel Aviv against Germany.
One player who has been performing strongly for Israel is veteran Alex Cohen, who averaged 12 points and a smidge under 7 rebounds across these five contests. Cohen sat down ahead of the tournament to discuss the upcoming campaign, as well as her own personal basketball journey.
“Every time we get to put the Israel jersey on is exciting, but to do it in front of our friends and family and our home crowd is something we’ve been dreaming about and excited about for a long time,” Cohen began. “When we first got the news that it was going to be here, we were very, very excited to prepare and to show the world what we have here in Israel.”
The Israeli women’s team has not played in the EuroBasket since the 2011 competition in Poland – where the team finished 11th – but this year the team was granted automatic qualification as a host nation. However, Israel still participated in the qualifying rounds where the team defeated Sweden twice and lost to Latvia in both games that they played.
“I think that with us knowing that we didn’t have to qualify, we were just be able to be free and play our game,” Cohen said of the difference this campaign without needing to win to participate in the continental competition.
“We were able to beat Sweden twice and had two really good games against Latvia, which was really cool and to get those first two wins after what happened last campaign against Sweden [where Israel lost both and failed to qualify for that tournament] was really exciting for us. I thought it was a really good opportunity for us to work on our chemistry and to work on some new things and experiment with different lineups and different plays, offense and defense and things like that. So I think it provided us with a really good opportunity to get to know one another.”
There are some familiar faces on the roster of the Israeli team from the previous EuroBasket campaign, including captain Eden Rotberg, Daniel Raber, Eden Zipel and Daniel Karsh. However, there are also some new faces, including Jennie Simms, who became an Israeli citizen last year.
“I think we put together a really great team,” Cohen assessed the squad. “We have a roster of some really impressive players and I think that’s going to really showcase itself on the court.
“You know everyone plays on their own teams during the year, some have played in Europe, in the States, in College,” Cohen continued. “But to come together with a really amazing group of women is something really special. We enjoy every day we come into the locker room and that translates onto the court.”
Playing in front of a home crowd is a clear advantage for the world’s 49th-ranked team, one that they will need, especially considering that they’re playing against the 7th-ranked Belgium – who boasts Emma Messeeman, who just won her fifth EuroLeague title and was named the EuroLeague MVP – 14th-ranked Italy and 23rd-ranked Czech Republic. Rather than daunting them, this is a challenge that Cohen and the team is embracing. “I think right now, just because it’s right in front of us, it’s Belgium,” Cohen said of the game that she’s looking forward to the most. “It’s our first game, it’s our first opportunity to prove ourselves. You know, Belgium has a great history, so having the opportunity to face them first in front of our crowd, hopefully surprise a lot of people, it’s incredible exciting for us.”
Cohen grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Her father, Robert Cohen – whom she recognizes as being a big influence for her both on and off the court – was an All-American basketballer at Lawrence University. “I started playing when I was 10 and I got my height from him and that’s one of the reasons I started,” Cohen spoke of her father. “We had a very special relationship because he always approached me after the games in a really amazing way. He was always very supportive. If I didn’t want to talk about the game, great. If I really did and I wanted to hear his thoughts, he was very open to share with me and always a very supportive, constructive way. So that was something really special.”
Although her father passed away before she started her professional career, he has in some way affected the direction of her career to play in Israel. “He was able to see in person almost all of my college games. Unfortunately, he passed away before I came to Israel, but being able to play with an Israel jersey on, I know that would make him so proud. He had the opportunity to play here, decided not to in order to start a family and obviously that was something that benefited all of us in the family. I know it would make him really proud to see where I am now and this team competing for the European championships.”
Like many talented Jewish sportspeople from around the world, Cohen had the opportunity to represent her country of origin in the Maccabiah Games, where she won gold with the American team in 2009 – well before she started her college career at Northwestern University.
“I was 15 when I first came here and that three weeks here really opened by eyes to everything the country had to offer, everything basketball here in Israel had to offer,” Cohen said of her Maccabiah experience. “That was kind of my first taste and I fell in love with it in that short time and knew that after college that was something that was a possibility for me, for me to come back to Israel. I got to show myself a little bit to some of the people in the basketball community and they were able to reach out to me after college.”
After college, Cohen came to Israel to play professionally. “I’m really thankful that I had that opportunity to come here [for Maccabiah], because almost close to 10 years later, I’m here living in Israel and my family’s here so I’m very lucky for that.
“I tell people it was a blessing and a curse that I played here in my first year, because as soon as I left college and came here to Israel, I was kind of stuck. It was impossible to leave after that. I had such a wonderful first year, getting to the fifth game in the championships in my rookie season and just fell in love with everything that had to do with Israel. Having the opportunities I have today, I kind of owe it all to my first trip here, getting that experience and being able to become an Israeli citizen has really changed my life.”
Over her time in Israel, Cohen has had success with a number of teams, including winning the League Championships with Elitzur Ramla and Maccabi Ramat Gan, as well as State Cups with Ramla and Maccabi Bnot Ashdod. The Ashdod State Cup win, which she shared with Israeli teammate Tal Sahar, came in January of this year. However, the team was unable to complete the double, going down in a memorable 5-game finals series in May to Elitzur Ramla and Israel teammates, captain Eden Rotberg and starting guard Alyssa Baron.
The finals series showcased a high-profile frontcourt battle between imports Shakira Austin for Ramla and Liz Cambage for Ashdod. Cohen spoke about what she was able to learn from her experience of playing with Cambage, a four-time WNBA All Star and Olympics Bronze medalist with Australia. “Liz, she’s had a crazy career with Australia. She’s been in the Olympics, she’s seen a lot of big arenas. So to have that kind of leadership, it was really cool to see that and obviously I’ve seen her play for years. To have a post player on the team that I’m able to learn from and try to bring some of those qualities to this National Team is a really great opportunity, it was really cool to have her on the team.”
Cohen not only represents the Israeli National Team, but she also represents the country’s 3×3 team as its captain. While she successfully led Israel to 3×3 World Cup qualification in Eilat last month, given the focus of the summer is the EuroBasket, she did not participate in the tournament, where Israel got through their group, but lost in the quarterfinal play-in game to Spain.
“It’s an interesting situation. I didn’t think I was going to play in Eilat, just because this was our goal right now, to focus on the European championships. It was a really good opportunity to play with some new players whom I haven’t played with yet, but to qualify to Vienna is a really big deal and we’re lucky enough to have opportunities to host in Israel.”
Outside of playing basketball, Cohen has a degree in Human Development and Psychological Services with a minor in Human Communication Science and has an interest in working in not-for-profit organizations. While she has no retirement plans yet – “every day is a gift and we’ve just got to take one day at a time, stay in the present” – Cohen already has direction for her post-playing career.
“That’s something that I’m able to do a little bit in basketball, to get out into the community and get involved in the community with sports, which I really love. I think that’s something that I can see myself doing in the future too, to combine my love of basketball and sports with the ability to give back, so there’s a lot of different non-profit opportunities that are out there and community-relations teams and things like that. Whether specifically something in that will happen, I imagine myself in the realm of staying within sports and the community.”
For now, the sole focus for her and Team Israel is to get through the group stage of the EuroBasket in Tel Aviv and get to the next round of games in Slovenia.
“The big goal is Slovenia,” Cohen said confidently. “We’re going to make it through the preliminary round, the home court games and hopefully we get through that and we’ll run to the next round. We’re always looking forward and always looking up. We start with Belgium, so we’ll take this one game at a time with that goal in mind. We’re hoping to fly very soon!”
The FIBA EuroBasket begins on June 15, with the group stages being held in Tel Aviv and Slovenia. The Shlomo Group Arena will host the games in Tel Aviv. Tickets are on sale now at http://womenseurobasket2023.co.il, at an affordable price of 50 Shekels per game, giving Israel basketball fans the opportunity to see a first-class international tournament live in their backyard.