Israelis, N.Y. firefighters play hoops for charity

The players gather to pose for photos and to exchange gifts before the Basketball as Friendship charity game on May 16. (Shimon Golding)

The players gather to pose for photos and to exchange gifts before the Basketball as Friendship charity game on May 16. (Shimon Golding)

NEW YORK, May 18 (JTA) — That dream match-up between aging Israeli basketball players and New York firefighters is no longer a dream. Though most fans seemed disappointed when the Israelis lost to the New York Fire Department, 76-63, in Sunday’s charity basketball game, the event’s organizers said the day still was a success. “It’s an important connection because we’ve made a friendship in the past with Israelis,” said Salvatore Cassano, chief of operations for the fire department. “Israelis constantly face terror; when it finally hit our shores, we’ve formed a close bond.” The charity game was attended by roughly 1,000 people, and by all accounts it cemented bonds of friendship between Israelis and Americans. Sunday’s bout between Israel’s hoopsters New York’s Bravest reunited some of the best-known basketball players to play in Israel, including Newark-born Aulcie Perry and Tal Brody. After the game, the teams split the proceeds from the game, which benefited each other’s charity arms. The firefighters’ money wen to the New York Police and Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund, and the Israelis gave the money to the America-Israel Friendship League’s Citizenship Through Sports program. “This afternoon is dedicated to showing the world that freedom, democracy and competition is going to continue,” said Kenneth Bialkin, chairman of the America-Israel Friendship League, during the game’s opening ceremony. The league sponsored the event, along with the Fire Department of New York, the Consulate General of Israel in New York, the New York Sports Commission and the New York Board of Rabbis. Fans, mostly American Jews and Israelis, reveled in seeing players that had put Israeli basketball on the global map. They also appreciated the sentiment behind the match-up. As Frida Konfino’s son Niv, 8, watched Perry lope up and down the court with awe, the Israeli woman reflected on the long-standing relationship between the United States and Israel. “After Sept. 11, the friendship between Israel and the U.S. became more. They feel what we feel every time a bomb comes in Israel,” she said. Though the crowd mostly came to see the Israelis, adults and children who just wanted to watch a good game trickled into the Harlem gymnasium throughout the day. Richard Hudson, a department of juvenile justice employee, brought his son and two nephews to the game. “Anything that’s bringing people together is always a nice idea,” he said. Indeed, his son and nephews got into the spirit of the game, sticking small American and Israeli flags into their nylon do-rags — stocking caps. For the last 20 years, Israeli basketball has grown steadily as a force to be reckoned with. Israeli club teams have won four European titles: Maccabi Tel Aviv in 1977, 1981 and 2001; Hapoel Jerusalem this year. Israeli players also have been recruited to some of the NCAA’s Division I schools, including the University of Connecticut, George Washington University, Boston College and the University of California at Berkeley. Still, high hopes for the Israeli team on Sunday — “The Israelis are gonna kill ‘em,” said one fan — couldn’t match the youth and athleticism of the firefighters. By the end of the first quarter, FDNY was up 42-10, thanks in part to their MVP, Keith Long, of Manhattan’s Engine 16. “FDNY are young, athletic,” said Craig Warnick, an Israeli player. “The Israeli players have been off raising children so we’ll see how fast the rust comes off.” During the fourth quarter, the Israelis closed the gap. Still, with five seconds left on the clock, both teams dropped the ball to shake hands, leaving the final score at 76-63. “We’re old and slow,” said former Maccabi player and current Princeton coach Howard Levy. “You play to win, but for an event like this you don’t.”

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