When Israeli players on the national basketball team convene for practice to prepare for tournaments, one of the most enjoyable aspects of these meetings for them is the chance to speak Hebrew again. On the other hand, when it comes to the under-20 national team, the most commonly heard tongue these days is English.
This can be attributed to the new immigrant from the United States, Jake Cohen, who joined the U-20 squad one month prior to the start of the European Championships Division B, without knowing a word of Hebrew.
Thus far he has learned to say phrases like "boker tov," ("good morning" ) and "Shabbat shalom." He has even started to chat with his teammates here and there. "He's also learned some Hebrew profanities," said teammate Ben Reis.
The team's practices are conducted in English, in deference to Cohen. "All of our meetings and sessions with the players are held twice, once in Hebrew and again in English," said coach Yakov Gino. "All the players understand English, but this is the Israel national team and it's important that Hebrew be the spoken language."
Cohen was born to Jewish parents in Montgomery, Alabama, on September 25, 1990. His family observes Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Pesach. Although Jake was called to the Torah for his bar mitzvah, no one in his family has ever visited Israel.
Standing at 6'10" (2.08 meters ), Cohen studied and played basketball at Conestoga High School in Philadelphia's northwestern suburbs.
According to an ESPN scouting report from the summer of 2008, "Cohen has decent footwork and post moves when he gets the ball on the block. He will have to improve his strength and add muscle to his frame in order to better hold his position on the block for scoring and rebounding."
In 2009, he enrolled at Davidson College outside Charlotte, North Carolina. After joining the basketball team, he quickly became one of the most talked-about names on campus. It took him just six games to crack the starting lineup.
Impressive stats - 13.3 points per game, 5.1 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks - were good enough to earn him Freshman of the Year honors in the mid-major Southern Conference.
Last January, an Israeli basketball observer who takes an active interest in the college game mentioned Cohen to the U-20 assistant coach, Oren Aharoni. After getting a glimpse of Cohen's game, Aharoni fell in love and began scouting him from up close.
Officials at the Israel Basketball Association understood that Cohen had serious potential to boost the U-20 squad. After expressing interest in adding him to the team, Cohen reciprocated, telling the coaches that he had anticipated going to the most important place in the history of the Jewish people.
"Even his mother was thrilled with the idea," Gino said. "It was important for her that her son would come to Israel."
The IBA sought permission from Davidson to add Cohen to the U-20 roster. The college agreed, but with caveats: Cohen was not permitted to receive financial compensation of any kind, nor was he to receive permission for the use of an automobile that he did not pay for. In addition, Cohen is not permitted to speak to the media and, most significantly, he is not allowed to communicate with player agents or professional teams.
"I know of many teams in Israel who are interested in him," Gino said.
Cohen landed in Israel on June 13. Alone in a strange land, he took up residence at the Wingate Institute in Netanya, the site of the team's practices. Officials made a concerted effort to ensure that Cohen would not be lonely. Every weekend, he is invited to stay at a different teammate's home.
Still, during the team's recent practice sessions, Cohen looked to be isolated from the others. On occasion, he would exchange a word or two with his teammates, yet he still does not appear to be "one of the guys."
"He's a good kid, a serious kid," said Reis. "But he does have a bit of a problem with the language. It's not easy [for us] to speak English the whole time."
From a basketball standpoint, Cohen's acclimation has been much smoother. Within a short amount of time, he has become a leader on the court. In a recent practice game, he accumulated 24 points and 13 rebounds.
"He's a big man, which is something that we don't see with the young national teams," Reis said. "He's a go-to guy who understands the game well."
Gino is also effusive in his praise for Cohen. "He's 2.08 meters tall but he moves like a forward," the coach said. "He has a great shooting touch and he knows how to play with his back to the basket. He's not a great rebounder, but he helps us a lot [in that area]."
IBA officials are hopeful that Cohen can help the U-20 team return to Division A. Whether the team succeeds or not, some are already thinking ahead.
"I don't see Cohen making it to the NBA, so Israel can be a good option for him," said Yoram Harush, the IBA manager for the younger national teams. "Jake reminds me of Robert Rothbart, who also came to Israel by way of the U-20 team, and today he is an Israeli through and through."
Israel lost to Sweden 71-67 in its first game of the tournament yesterday in Austria.