Over the years, the path to Israel's national teams has traditionally gone through the youth leagues. Here and there, though, one can spot a few later bloomers who reach the adult national team without being picked for any of the younger outfits. Meet Uri Kukia.
Barring any unforeseen developments, the 29-year-old Kukia will make his Israel national team debut next Monday for the start of the 2011 EuroBasket qualifying campaign.
"I never played on a national team in my life," said the 2.02-meter center / power forward for Hapoel Jerusalem. "I didn't even take part in a preliminary practice or tryout. I cut my teeth with Elitzur Yavneh and Maccabi Rehovot, which are sporting clubs that are not as widely known. Although Omri Casspi and Elishay Kadir grew up in Yavneh, they left for bigger clubs at a young age, and I didn't."
"I'm not sure I was quite good enough for the younger national teams," Kukia said. "I didn't grow up in the world of basketball, I didn't get to know everyone there, and they didn't know me either. I didn't even try out for any national team. As a youth player, your goal is to one day reach the adult squad. Ultimately, I would end up at [the youth squad of] Hapoel Tel Aviv."
At age 21, Kukia first entered the Premier League as a member of Hapoel Galil Elyon. He would move on to two unconsecutive stints at Ironi Nahariya, with a trip to Bnei Hasharon in-between.
During the 2007-2008 season, he was relegated to the bench at Nahariya. Unsatisfied, he dropped to the second-tier league and joined Maccabi Haifa, the team with which he ascended back to the Premier League and made his career breakthrough.
He rode the momentum to two productive years which he split between Hapoel Holon and Hapoel Jerusalem, and is now seeing the fruit of his efforts with a spot on the national team.
"I had years that were somewhat better and somewhat worse," Kukia said. "Then came the low point at Nahariya. Once I started to play at Maccabi Haifa, I realized that I needed to do all I could and enjoy the moment. Whatever will be will be."
"At Haifa, I was on the court for 30 minutes a game," he said. "This gave me a chance to make mistakes and to stay on the floor so that I can correct those mistakes. From this point, everything changed."
Do you feel like a better player today than three years ago?
"I'm doing things that I haven't done before, and I have more confidence in the things I'm doing. My coaches, Danny Franco at Holon and Guy Goodes at Jerusalem, had confidence in me. Once I have confidence in myself and the confidence of a support system around me, it's easier to play and you aren't scared that one mistake will send you back to the bench."
Kukia was first invited to the national team last summer, but he did not make the cut for the EuroBasket tournament. "I was one of the first players that was let go," he said. "I wasn't in the coaches' plans, and that's fine. I moved on."
This summer, his position on the team has significantly solidified. During the first four exhibition games, he was in the starting lineup. "I wasn't surprised," he said. "We all knew that we had players missing and that we were beginning the qualifying campaign with fewer bodies so that we would all have an opportunity to play. Even those who weren't in the starting lineup got a lot of minutes and had a chance to prove themselves."
Do you think you proved yourself?
"I always give it my all. We started the campaign with a trip to Belarus, we were competitive in these games, and we were constantly improving. Whether I proved myself or not is up to the coach. I feel good on the national team. I hope I can break the 12-man rotation and I will fight for every minute of playing time. If I play, or how many minutes I play, is not my decision. In any event, I'm really happy to be here. Perhaps this is a cliche, but this is a good group of guys here and it's fun to be here."
As long as Yaniv Green is out of the mix, the national team has no center on the roster except you. Yet you lost your spot in the starting five. What happened?
"It was clear that the minute the main guys joined the team, everyone would have to contribute. We have one of the best forwards in Europe, Lior Eliyahu. We have a guy who plays in the NBA, and we have Elishay and a bunch of other good players."
But a team whose main strength is supposed to be its transition game may need a rebounder such as yourself, especially when rebounding is the team's weakness.
"We have guys who can run out and get easy baskets. There is no doubt that this is key, but rebounding is a matter of positioning and desire. As time goes by, we'll improve in this area. [Head coach] Arik [Shivek] talked to us about how we don't have a player whose height is 2.14 meters and who can clean up the boards. So rebounding has to be a group effort. We have players who can rebound, like Omri and Elishay, and we have tall guards like Tal [Burstein]. Even if somebody grabs an offensive rebound, there's a difference as to whether you allow him to score or whether you force him to pass it out."
What kind of national team can we expect to see in the qualifiers?
"This is a team with a lot of talent, players with great capabilities, and like always, a feisty team that plays together and encourages one another. We are slowly coming together and we see the improvement constantly. The more we play and the more players that are added help us tremendously."
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