From the Sweet 16 to the obscurity of pro in Israel (cont.)
On the flip side, like most Israelis, they are also not shy about voicing their displeasure when things don't go well. It's wrong to call it rudeness, but some Israelis possess this unbridled honesty that enables them to ask questions and make comments that many Americans would keep to themselves. For example, after we lost our opening game of the season to local rival Ashdod, I returned home to order a pizza. Before handing me my food, the deliveryman greeted me with, "It's you! How'd you guys lose tonight? I was embarrassed to watch the game." That's pretty bold coming from a man whom I had yet to tip, but that is the reality of life as a professional basketball player. I am living in a small, modest Israeli town where the basketball team is a huge source of pride. Ashkelon can't offer the amenities or leisure activities of Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, so after the beach, Ashkelonians can basically look forward to basketball and soccer. After I realized how uniquely important my team's success was to the Ashkelon basketball fans, I could appreciate how the "Blue Wave," as the fans are called, can be so loving and fiery all at once.
Outside of basketball, I love that Ashkelon is the most unlikely of cultural melting pots. I naively expected to meet exclusively white Jews in Israel, but in the entire country (and Ashkelon especially) that is not the case. There are sizable populations of Moroccan, Ethiopian and Russian immigrants in Ashkelon, the latter of whom aren't even all Jewish. My apartment building houses Spaniards, Frenchmen, Americans and Israelis. These different groups make living in Ashkelon more interesting, but it doesn't make it any easier to interact with my neighbors. For whatever reason, it's difficult to find people in Ashkelon who speak very good English. Many speak it well enough to understand a food order or a request at a store, but in a country that requires its students to take English classes starting in fourth grade, it's odd that many locals struggle with the language.
It is interesting though to see the differences in English fluency among my Israeli teammates. After years of playing European basketball, where English is the universal language, the veterans speak decent to very good English. The young players, on the other hand (and by young I mean younger than I am), are mostly local and have a hard time talking in English beyond basic basketball terminology. It doesn't make it any less fun to talk, hang out, or play with them, it just makes communicating both on and off the court more of a challenge.
Surprisingly, the most difficult adjustment of all has been the basketball. It's exciting to be playing alongside players I grew up watching (on my team are former NBA players Gabe Pruitt, Desmond Farmer and Tim Pickett) and with heady European league veterans, both Israeli and American, that can show a young rookie the ropes. What I wasn't expecting, however, was the intense pressure to win that comes along with being paid to play basketball. I've been watching the NBA nearly my whole life, so the fact that pro basketball is a business first is not some grand revelation for me. I've just never appreciated it until now.
Maybe it's because there are only 27 games in the Israeli regular season and only one game per week (so each game is scrutinized and magnified much more than a single NBA regular-season game is), but after each of my team's losses so far this season the stress level of each practice and workout was something I never came close to experiencing in my four years of college. With each loss, the chance someone gets cut or traded spikes, and with each win you can tangibly sense the relief in the locker room. After talking with my college teammates playing in Germany, Spain, and Italy, I know this impatience isn't unique to Israel. In college, losses were purely heartbreaking, but in the pros, a loss goes beyond emotion.
There are days when I try to imagine what it was like for Americans to play basketball abroad before the Internet, laptops, or iPods ... and simply can't. Without these luxuries, staying connected to home, family, friends, and what is going on outside this New Jersey-sized Middle Eastern country would be a challenge. Of course, for my American teammates and I, new media is a lifesaver: everyone is on Facebook now, Twitter is essentially a customizable e-newspaper, and Skype keeps me in touch with my family, friends back home and college teammates playing abroad without worrying about a huge phone bill. I probably couldn't have picked a bigger cultural adjustment than Ashkelon -- the entire city shuts down from 3 p.m. on Friday to Saturday night at sundown for Shabbat.
While the college basketball season is approaching its one-of-a-kind climax, the Israeli basketball calendar is lagging a couple of months behind. After our regular season ends on April 21, the top eight teams in the 10-team league advance to the playoffs. Unless things change in a hurry, I could be flying home sooner rather than later. Ashkelon is 5-17 on the season, sitting in ninth place, and three games out of the final playoff spot with five games to go. So, yeah ... a year removed from being near the top of college basketball I am at the bottom of Israeli basketball.
As a first-year pro that wasn't planning on a career in basketball three months before this all started, I couldn't be prouder of my individual performance and effort this season. The numbers aren't great or even decent (I'm averaging only 3 points, 3 boards in about 12 minutes a game), but this season was way more about personal growth than stats for me anyway. Plus, I can always tell my grandchildren someday that I led the Israeli Premier League in fouls per minute (like a wise man once said, "If you're not fouling, you're not playing defense"). There's a chance I will retire from pro basketball after one season, though I haven't decided anything officially yet. My ultimate goal for the future, whenever I do decide to call it quits, is to have a successful career writing about the sport. If I can write a college basketball blog while playing professional basketball overseas, I'm excited to see what I can do when I'm living in the same hemisphere as the games I'm covering.
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