Basketball, an urban game, was known as a Jewish game in its early decades, as scrappy Jewish athletes came out of the ghettos for places on professional rosters.
It’s happening again — but the cities the players are coming from are Tel Aviv and Ranaana.
Two Israeli basketball players were chosen in last week’s National Basketball Association draft. If Lior Eliyahu, a native of Tel Aviv, or Yotam Halperin, from Ranaana, make the cut with the Houston Rockets and Seattle Supersonics, respectively, they will become the first sabras in the NBA. Doron Sheffer, an Israeli-born star at the University of Connecticut, was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers in 1996, but decided to turn pro with Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israel’s perennial champions.
“It’s a natural trend in the NBA — the internationalization of the game,” says Dave Kufeld, a basketball expert who graduated from Yeshiva University and was drafted in 1980 by the Portland Trailblazers. The last Jewish player in the NBA was Danny Schayes, who retired in 1999.
In addition to the two Israelis, one Jewish American, UCLA guard Jordan Farmar — he has a Jewish mother and an African American father — was also picked in the draft last week, by the Los Angeles Lakers.
Being drafted “is good news, but it’s not the end of the news,” Eliyahu, 20, told The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. He has a year of army service left. “Then I can go to the states.”
Though Eliyahu, a 6-9 forward, was a star player the last two seasons with Hapoel Galil Elyon-Golan, he said his career highlight was winning a European championship as part of Israel’s junior team two years ago.
Eliyahu says he and Halperin, a 6-5 point guard, are good friends and are not competing to be the first Israeli in the NBA.
“Israeli basketball is getting better and better,” he says, predicting that in a decade several NBA teams will have Israeli players.