National team coach Arik Shivek isn't stingy with the praise for his center, St. Louis-born Jewish convert and new immigrant Alex Tyus. "Over the years," says Shivek, "many good naturalized players have played for Israel who were better than their [Israeli-born] counterparts in their positions, but we've never had a player like Alex."
Tyus, 24, played college basketball for the University of Florida Gators, reaching the quarterfinals of the NCAA championships. At college the 2.03-meter hoopster's Jewish roommate introduced him to Judaism, and last year he converted, together with his wife, who has Jewish roots.
He arrived at Maccabi Ashdod at the end of last summer. Tyus was registered at Ashdod as a foreign player, but a few weeks ago he received his Israel citizenship - and with it the opportunity to represent the country.
"The process of giving him citizenship was quick," says Yaakov Ben Shushan, director general of the Israel Basketball Association, who dealt with the matter. "Other players have had to wait much longer, but a letter from Sports Minister Limor Livnat to the Interior Ministry certainly helped, and pushed his case to the top of the pile."
Ben Shushan says much of the credit is also due attorney Nicole Maor, who says: "Alex is different from other naturalized players in that he converted to Judaism before he even thought of Israel. He wanted to go to the NBA, but there was a strike going on and his agent advised him to check out Israel. During the year he answered all the demands made of a gentile who wants to be recognized as an immigrant - he belonged to a [Jewish] community, attended synagogue aligned with the Conservative movement and stayed with Jewish families. We managed to convince the Interior Ministry that his conversion was made in good faith, and he was afforded Israeli citizenship under the Law of Return.
"Immigrants usually receive a passport only after a year in which they prove that they intend to live here, but the Interior Ministry quickly issued him an Israeli passport so he could play for the national team," said Maor.
Tyus says he maintains his connection with Judaism. "I have a family in Ashkelon who I go to every Shabbat," he says. "I sometimes go to the synagogue on Friday nights. I pray from a siddur [prayer book] in Hebrew with an English translation. I know basic Hebrew and am learning more words every day."
Tyus started well at Ashdod, then took a downturn. "It was hard because I was disconnected from my wife for a while. She had to return to the U.S. to join her family's business," he says.
In the second half of the season he was instrumental in Ashdod's surprise qualification for the Final Four, averaging 12 points on 77 percent shooting and 12 rebounds. He finished the season with an average of 13.3 points on 67 percent shooting and 8.3 rebounds.
"The biggest improvement to Tyus' game during the season was his adapting his game to European basketball," says Shay Hausman, the team manager at Ashdod.
His coach at Ashdod, Ofer Berkovich, says: "He arrived as an athlete, but learned to improve many aspects of his game. He's learned to react quicker to moves and to help in defense."
Next stop: Italy
This summer Tyus signed with Italian team Pallacanestro Cantu. "I wanted to stay in Israel, but no team offered me a contract," he says.
"Not many teams have money. Maccabi [Tel Aviv] made no official offer. I know the coach [David Blatt] wanted me, but the management wouldn't do the deal. As an Israeli my taxes are high, so they didn't go in that direction."
If last summer Tyus wanted to play in the NBA, now his focus is on Europe. "We'll play in the Euroleague qualifiers, and if we don't make it we'll play in the Eurocup. In any case it'll mean two games a week, a new experience for me that will improve me as a European player.
"Right now I'm concentrating on being one of the best players in Europe. Maybe one day I'll try to reach the NBA. I didn't go to any NBA trials this summer because I wanted to play with the national team - and I'm glad I did."
In his first games for Israel, last week's tournament in Ukraine, Tyus was named the team's MVP with 12.3 points and seven rebounds.
"Alex is a wonderful guy who rapidly became popular with the other players," says Shivek.
"He played well throughout the tournament, but still has to learn the others' games. He's a great force in defense."
Says Tyus: "I'm playing with guys who know each other well and have played together for years. I'm new to the national team, but that's the same situation I faced at Ashdod. I learn quickly and adapt myself, and the other players help me."
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