Holy Land Hoop Dreams: Why Americans Love Playing Pro Basketball In Israel

Dov Halickman Photography

By Clemente Lisi, Special to The Sports RabbiOriginally published on ReligionUnplugged.com

NEW YORK — Drew Kennedy still remembers when he arrived in Israel back in 1989 to play pro basketball.

“There were a lot of people in my family and friends who questioned my decision,” recalled Kennedy, who was drafted by the Philadelphia 76ers in 1987.

Amid simmering tensions in the region, Kennedy had signed with Hapoel Galil Elyon after failing to get playing time in the NBA. For Kennedy, it was a chance to play basketball at a high level.

The team Kennedy signed with hailed from the country’s northeast region, nestled in an area between the West Bank and the Sea of Galilee. Kennedy’s arrival also coincided with Israelis and Palestinians engaging in an escalating bloody conflict — one that would worsen throughout the 1990s — that was punctuated that year by the July 16 Tel Aviv-Jerusalem bus massacre where 16 people were killed in a suicide attack.

“There were many nights when I was home and you could hear rockets shooting over. There were casualties. People suffered tremendously,” said Kennedy, a former small forward who played college ball at Virginia. “I remember getting calls from my family members who’d say, ‘Why are you there? You could be home?’”

Instead, Kennedy, now 54 and a scout with the NBA’s Washington Wizards, said he and his teammates enjoyed a “sense of community” like he’d never experienced before in his life. In the process, Kennedy said he learned a lot about “the resilience Israelis show in a time of crisis.”

Like Kennedy, scores of African-American players have called the Israeli Basketball Premier League (known in Hebrew as Ligat Winner Sahome or ליגת ווינר סל‎) home, drawn there for a chance to play professionally and earn decent money. In the process, these players have become ambassadors for the Jewish state — some even marrying Israeli women, serving in the country’s army, representing Israel in international competition and converting to Judaism. Since 1990, for example, 18 Americans have been named league MVP — most recently former Eastern Kentucky point guard Corey Walden while playing for Hapoel Holon last season.

Kennedy took part in a panel discussion on May 27 sponsored by The Consulate General of Israel in New York and streamed on Facebook Live featuring former basketball stars Cory Carr, Deon Thomas and Derrick Sharp, all of whom had successful careers in Israel. The players reminisced about their careers and candidly discussed the religious and cultural dynamics of Israeli life and what it’s like for African Americans to play and live there.

“It is safer in Israel than anywhere — especially for a black person and nowadays with what’s going on in Minnesota,” said Sharp, referring to the recent death of George Floyd while being arrested in Minneapolis.

Terrorism concerns aside, the players recalled happier times. Friday night Shabbat dinners with their teammates and the passion of Israeli fans during games, a stark contrast to what Americans typically witness on NBA courts, were two things the players said they will never forget.

“Israeli fans are more comparable to college [basketball] fans,” said Sharp, a former point guard who won 13 Israeli championships with powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. “More passionate and excited for their team and players.”

For Americans who can’t make it in the NBA (like the undrafted Walden), playing abroad isn’t a new phenomenon. While many have chosen to play in Italy, Spain or Greece, Israel has increasingly become a destination for these players — 133 at the moment — with the promise of earning six figures and a great lifestyle in a country that reveres American talent. In fact, Israeli teams hold tryouts seeking talent in the United States in the hopes of signing players.

“It is an extraordinary positive phenomenon that [Jews] can be proud of,” said David Goldstein, author of the book Alley-Oop to Aliyah: African-American Hoopsters in the Holy Land.

Living in Israel is appealing because it is a lot like American life. People speak English and the country has a very high standard of living. It is also warm throughout most of the year and its beaches are some of the best in the world. It also gives Americans the chance to compete in the EuroLeague, a tournament featuring teams from across the continent. Many Europeans currently playing in the NBA — Luka Doncic of the Dallas Mavericks is the latest example — once competed in the EuroLeague.

The first American player to leave his mark on Israeli basketball was Aulcie Perry, who signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1967 after never getting a chance to start for the New York Knicks. The New Jersey native ended up converting to Judaism and became an Israeli citizen. Of the 800 Americans ever to play in Israel, former NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire is arguably among one of the biggest names.

Stoudemire, who was raised Baptist, converted to Judaism in 2018 and made an Israeli citizen.

“When I’m not training, I study Torah,” Stoudemire told The New York Times in 2018. “Study, train, study, train, study, train, study. That’s life.”

Stoudemire became a Jew after going on his first religions pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2010, eventually deciding to leave the Mavericks to play basketball in Israel. He became part investor and player for Hapoel Jerusalem, the team he won a championship with in 2017. Earlier this year, he moved on to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv.

The Israeli league is currently on hiatus — like the vast majority of pro sports around the world — as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. Although Israel has not been hit hard by the contagion, sports have been halted since March, but are scheduled to return on June 20 with no fans.

As for Kennedy, he helped Hapoel Galil Elyon win a historic league title in 1993, breaking Maccabi’s 23-year lock on the championship. He played in Israel for 12 years — the most of any foreign player in league history — for six teams before retiring in 2002 with Ironi Ramat Gan. He said the Israeli people remain a big part of his life.

“They seize life and opportunity,” he said. “Maybe it has something to do where Israel is strategically located, but the warmth and zest for life still resonates to this day. It was amazing experiences.”

Clemente Lisi is a senior editor and regular contributor to Religion Unplugged. He is the former deputy head of news at the New York Daily News and teaches journalism at The King’s College in New York City. Follow him on Twitter @ClementeLisi.

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