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Across the Former Soviet Union This Jewish Guy’s Got Game: Israeli Makes Mark in Ukrainian Hoops

June 6, 2006
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Israeli basketball player Afik Nissim doesn’t like to play on Saturday for his Kiev team, but he recently had to do so for a big game. "I try not to violate Shabbat, but basketball is the only thing I can make an exception for," says the 25-year-old, who was raised in a suburb of Tel Aviv. "If I have to travel with the team or play on Saturday, I do: It’s my job, and I love it," says Nissim, who has played basketball since he was 6 years old.

Unfortunately, Nissim’s team, BC Kiev, lost in the finals to Azovmash. But Nissim, who has averaged just less than 10 points a game this year, has still established himself as one of the key players on one of Ukraine’s top teams.

Nissim, who plays guard and is known for his outside shooting, is the shortest player on the team. But his height is not the only thing that makes him stand out. He’s not the only foreigner in BC Kiev — in fact, the team largely consists of foreigners — but he is the only Israeli player.

And he is the only Israeli who is believed to be playing in any professional sport in Ukraine this year. No Israeli has ever played in the NBA, but a few have starred on U.S. college teams.

When Nissim arrived in Kiev three months ago, his teammates were amazed at how little he ate and drank when they went out.

Nissim is not Orthodox, but he does not eat non-kosher meat and he is not keen on alcohol, he said. He ate mostly vegetables when he first got here.

"My non-Israeli teammates would say, with sympathy, that it must be so difficult for me not to be able to eat everything," recalls Nissim. "But it’s something that’s normal for me and what I feel good about."

Nissim has been away from Israel for three years, playing for basketball teams in France, in Rostov-on Don, Russia, and now in Ukraine. He says being far from home has made him more religious.

"When you are in Israel, you are like everybody else, and you don’t think about these things much," says Nissim, who prays every morning and tries to go to synagogue in Kiev every week. "But now, far away from Israel, holding on to my religion is the only thing that makes me closer to home."

It was tough for him in Rostov, where the Jewish community is small and kosher meat was difficult to obtain. But in Kiev, Nissim seems happy.

His best friend in Ukraine’s capital is the director of the King David, the city’s only kosher restaurant, and Kiev’s Central Synagogue is about 300 yards from the apartment the team rents for him. Nissim may be the only player on the team whose diet requires that the team’s administration bring kosher meals for every road trip, but he says he does not feel very different or awkward about it.

And it doesn’t hurt that BC Kiev’s sports director and an assistant coach are Israeli, too.

"BC Kiev is almost half-Israeli," jokes sports director Rani Kahane, who took up the position a year ago. Kahane had 25 years of experience coaching Israeli junior and national basketball teams when BC Kiev’s owner, Aleksandr Volkov, invited him to Kiev.

Kahane says he’s been friends with Volkov, a Ukrainian businessman and a former NBA player, since 1989.

"He needed somebody to be with the team 24 hours a day," says Kahane, who left a high-ranking job at the Israel Electric Company to work for BC Kiev.

BC Kiev was formed by Volkov seven years ago and hopes to become one of the top basketball clubs in Europe, Kahane says.

And to do that, he jokes, he will not necessarily make the whole team Israeli.

Language isn’t a problem: The players and coaches communicate with each other in English.

"Nationality in today’s basketball does not really matter, as long as you’ve got a good player who fits in with the team," says Kahane.

Nissim says he has been fitting in well and is looking forward to next season, which starts in August.

"The only thing that bothers me is being far away from my family back in Israel," says Nissim. "So I spend a lot of time on the Internet and on the phone, and I hope my parents and my three brothers can visit me in Kiev next season."

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