From the Sweet 16 to the obscurity of pro basketball in Israel
At this time last year, Jon Jaques was on top of world as Cornell made history
The Big Red played Kentucky in Syracuse and were America's underdog
Now, Jaques is a world away languishing on the bench as a professional in Israel
It's wild to think that just a year ago my Cornell teammates and I were on center stage of March Madness; that's what happens when you are the first Ivy League team to advance to the Sweet 16 since 1979. Thanks to Cornell's historic success last March and my upbringing as a Jewish-American, an opportunity to play basketball professionally in Israel essentially fell into my lap. I had no illusions of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land coming close to matching the excitement of my senior season at Cornell. Still, I wasn't at all prepared for how far removed the cramped, cookie-cutter gyms of Israel are from a stage like the Carrier Dome, where I played my last college game.
When Allen Iverson signed a two-year contract with the Turkish basketball club Besiktas in late October, the first thought that popped into my head shockingly wasn't about how far the former perennial NBA all-star and league MVP had fallen. Instead, I immediately questioned whether "The Answer" knew what he was getting himself into. Though my brief two-and-a-half months spent living the life of a pro athlete in the Middle East have been fascinating, it certainly hasn't been what I expected when I signed on for this adventure.
It might seem like a stretch to compare the basketball experience of a future Hall of Famer playing in Turkey to that of a first-year pro out of the Ivy League playing for Ironi "Eldan" Ashkelon in the Israeli Super League. But the two situations are more similar than they seem. The common denominator of the two basketball abroad experiences: the ABROAD part. Though every country (not named the United States) with a professional basketball league has it's own perplexing/absorbing culture to become accustomed to, finding your comfort zone in the new surroundings is way more than half the battle to achieving success on the court ... whether you are playing in Istanbul or Ashkelon.
It's an adjustment that's nearly seven months in the making for me and started on August 15 when I touched down at Ben Gurion International Airport. As a Jewish-American making Aliyah (the name of the process for a foreigner becoming an Israeli citizen), my acclimation is not typical of the American basketball player playing overseas. There is hoop after hoop to jump through, both at home and in Israel to officially gain citizenship. Within minutes of landing in Tel-Aviv, I was escorted to the ominous sounding "Ministry of Absorption" inside the airport. A few forms and photos later, I was welcomed into the country as an Israeli citizen.
The most memorable and eye-opening "Welcome to Israel!" moment was my visit to the Israeli army headquarters in Beer Sheba. Every Israeli citizen is required to serve in the army. Most do so when they graduate high school, unless there are extenuating circumstances that delay or clear their army obligations. I was told upon my arrival that there was a very simple and standard procedure American basketball players making Aliyah go through to waive the army responsibilities inherited by other Israeli citizens.
In order to be cleared or get an exemption from the army, you first have to go through the daylong army placement system. This process, which makes a trip to the DMV look like a day at Disneyland, was a nightmare. First, I was interviewed. Among other things, they prodded me about my family history and asked me to read and write in Hebrew (which I hadn't done since I was Bar Mitzvahed at age 13). My interviewer then really caught my attention by asking me to whom I would like to give my pension if I die in battle. I was then given a physical, where I scored a 93 (out of 100) on the army's official medical exam. This meant I could choose any division of the army I wish to participate in (this is considered a huge honor for most Israelis). After a computer aptitude test, the two basketball team managers accompanying me saved me from near enlistment. If it wasn't for them and their somewhat pushy tactics (Israelis have a knack for making every conversation seem like an argument), I could have easily been drafted right then and there. The managers were able to receive confirmation in writing that I would not be enlisted for at least one year.
I'm used to living and playing basketball in a town where everyone seems to know each other. But while Ashkelon and Ithaca, N.Y., may be similar in size, the similarities end there. If moving to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem for a whole year is a culture shock, then moving to Ashkelon is the equivalent of a cultural ice bath. In a lot of ways, Ashkelon is unlike the bigger, more citylike parts of Israel, and for that reason the cultural adjustment to living here is probably as big as it could have possibly been. But the small-town feel of Ashkelon is one of the characteristics I appreciate most. Whether it's because I always eat at the same five or six places or because I am the out-of-place-looking professional basketball player, people recognize my face, know I'm on the basketball team, and don't hesitate to talk with me about basketball and my life in their city. While I don't speak Hebrew well enough and most of them don't speak English well enough to carry on a conversation for longer than 30 seconds, it's nice to feel welcome in a really strange environment. Ashkelon basketball fans, like I'd imagine most fans of small-town/lower budget European teams, are extremely passionate about the team. They are everything a basketball player could ask for in a fan base: loyal, proud, and feverishly supportive. The fans, which are mostly made up of adolescent boys, travel to all away games, bang drums in the stands, paint their chests and blow vuvuzelas. They pack the energy and enthusiasm of European soccer into basketball arenas wherever we travel.