Bilal Benn is probably the best Christmas present Hapoel Nes Tziona ever got, and if his team upsets Hapoel Tel Aviv today and advances to the National League basketball championship, you can bet he will figure into the final result.
When Benn arrived in Israel on December 24, Nes Tziona was struggling in 11th place with a 4-7 record. Benn, a 25-year-old Philadelphia native, scored 25 points in his debut to lead his new team to a 95-92 victory over Hod Hasharon.
Over the past four months, Benn has made his agent's prophecy come to life. "I was in Lithuania and playing very well in their first league with Palanga Naglis," he told Haaretz yesterday. "I was in the top five in scoring and rebounding, and in the top 10 in steals. I was having a good year but we had a point guard who was very dominant with the ball, and that was controlling the offense of the team."
Then the offer came from Nes Tziona. "The crazy thing is my agent told me, 'Bilal. all this team is missing is one piece. You'll finish the regular season in the top four easy. I promise you will do well,'" Benn recalls. "I was like, 'Okay.' You hear it but you don't hear it. Everything he said really came true."
Indeed, Hapoel finished the season 15-11 - in fourth place. The team split its first two playoff games against Hapoel Tel Aviv, which finished 22-4 and benefitted from playing in the Balkan League this season. After losing by 20 in the opener, Benn poured in 17 points to compliment a 21-point night by Gabe Blair to top Hapoel 86-81 and force today's decider.
The winner plays Maccabi Be'er Yaakov for the right to be promoted to the Super League.
Benn, a 1.95-meter swingman who played college ball for Villanova and Niagara University, says he had a hard time the first time he met Hapoel Tel Aviv. "It was the first team I saw that was structured," he says. "They played really well, they were so disciplined." He says it's not that the players are so much better but that they are coached really well.
"Their star players don't take bad shots," he says. "That's why they are so good. Everybody knows their role on the team, and I think that is where my team advanced. They started coming along. Instead of someone scoring 30 a game, now some nights it's gonna be you, some nights it's gonna be me, but it's always us."
He says a loss soon after his arrival made his team start focusing. "We know we're better than these teams, so let's start playing like it," he says.
Benn lexudes the feeling that he's enjoying his stay in Israel and creating his own social circle. He came out to Game 4 of the women's Premier League final between Elitzur Ramle and Maccabi Ashdod. Sitting in the stands, a friend tried to play a practical joke on him by sneaking away Benn's iPad. Benn quickly turned to his friend's wife and asked politely for it back. He had used his peripheral vision, which makes him so good on defense, to keep track of his cherished possession without anyone else noticing.
"I like it a lot in Israel, a lot of nice things here," he says. "It's been an experience. I've met some nice families here and players like (Ramle's ) Stacy Morgan and Ryan Bacon." He cautions, "You can get too comfortable out here, so I stopped going out and started really caring about what I'm here for."
Better known for his defense, he says his shooting percentage has picked up since working out with his friend Brig Jones, an American resident of Modi'in he met through his Ramle buddies.
Win or lose, Benn says he's happy being in Israel and feels privileged because few players get this opportunity. "I love the fact that on Shabbat they eat with their families because in the States people don't eat with their families every Friday," he says. "I'm just enjoying my first season overseas."
As for his own family, Benn says they love his being here because it's a chance for him to develop and mature. "They're really enjoying it," he adds. "I'm turning into a man."
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