A Day at the Laces

A 1.55m-tall author gets in a day of practice with the women's national basketball team.

What do I, being 1.55 meters tall, have to do with basketball? The shortest girl in the class. What do I have to do with a practice session of the national women's team, which leaves today for the European Championship?

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Nir Kafri

The morning practice starts with a meeting. They watch and analyze game film of teams they'll play next week in Poland. Coach Eli Rabi speaks in English for the benefit of two players who immigrated from the United States. "Ladies," he says, rewinding the video. "Look at her move again."

Maybe it's his thick Israeli accent that reminded me of that skit by Hagashash Hahiver - you put de ball in de sal [basket], okay? But I'm the only one smiling. Thirteen young women in the room, all of them professional, their eyes fixed on the screen, listening intently. Dressed in the national squad jerseys, with blue-and-white tank tops and pants, their hair put up. They are tall and long-bodied, their strong, sculpted, muscular arms folded across their chests. I stare at the floor, trying to guess their shoe sizes.

But I just really don't get it. The last game I saw was in black-and-white. I skipped gym class in school.

It's 10:30 A.M. in the Ramat Gan municipal gym. Warm-up, stretching and here come countless orange balls. They are bounced, passed from hand to hand, fired in an arc and land in the basket. Two-three-four at a time, filling the net. The arena is filled with the dense, rubber whisper of hard balls, bouncing back and forth. An echo of the chirping of rubber sneakers moving on the parquet. Grunts of effort fill the air, breathing and panting, curses here and there. The assistant coach constantly encourages from the side: "Very good! Far corners! Let's go, pass!"

From one moment to the next, a glint of sweat, redness on the cheek. A glitter lights up the eyes. A ponytail flaps. The vitality of the body, the movements become more rounded, choreographing themselves and the ball, playing is the name of the game. I become thirsty.

Number 7 is Liron Cohen, they explain to me on the bench, a big player in Italy, and 8 is Shay Doron, the hot name right now, a former NCAA champion. The others were taken from their teams in Ramle, Ramat Hasharon, Netanya, Ashdod. "but in Poland they expect a difficult challenge," assistant coach Nimrod Meital tells me. In the qualifiers Israel will face Belarus and the Czech Republic, ranked second and fourth in the world. "And all the women there are above 1.90 meters, real giants."

And then there's the T-shirt controversy. Naama Shafir, number 18, is one of the team's younger players. She looks girlish, shy. It is difficult to tell that she has been the focus of a recent media frenzy. She petitioned FIBA to be allowed to wear a T-shirt under the national team jersey during play, to meet religious modesty requirements. Europe rejected the petition. Shafir - her short sleeves poking out of her jersey - refused to comment. And she slipped away, sweaty and with flushed cheeks, to the locker room.