Alex Tyus can't wait for Rosh Hashanah. No, it isn't the anticipation of a few days off from Ofer Berkovich's intensive training sessions. His excitement has to do with other, loftier reasons. Tyus - Maccabi Ashdod's new forward - converted to Judaism in the the United States along with his wife, and both are expecting to celebrate the Jewish new year in Israel for the first time.
"Our experience is more cultural and less emotional," said Tyus, 23. "But it's a good feeling to see Jewish life here. Having the Friday night meal with friends, or walking around on Friday and Saturday and seeing that all the stores are really closed, realizing how a state can really experience its Jewishness. In the U.S., everything is more complex, eating kosher or enjoying the holidays. Now we can really enjoy the festive days and expect the approaching holidays."
Tyus is genuinely excited about reaching the Holy Land, but he didn't exactly get down on all fours to kiss the ground either after landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
"As I went through the conversion process, I never thought about coming to Israel, because as far as basketball is concerned, I thought I would stay in the U.S. and was aiming at becoming an NBA player," he said. "But after the summer basketball camps I received a few offers, including the offer from Ashdod's professional director, Shay Houseman, to come here. I started thinking and felt that since I'm really becoming Jewish, Israel could be a wonderful option for me."
Tyus' religious awakening came as a surprise to many.
"My parents were never close to any particular religion," he said. "They just had their god, and that's it. But as I matured, I became more and more aware of religion in general. I had the things I believed in, and my roommate in college was Jewish - there are many Jews in the University of Florida. I always celebrated the holidays with him, and soon enough I became part of their community. I became more involved, and when I felt that Judaism suited my beliefs, my wife and I started the process. I'm very pleased we did it. In spite of the time it took and the various limitations, I really loved it. I studied and learned a lot, and I'm still learning."
Tyus and his wife converted in the United States, but he still isn't an Israeli citizen, and he'll play basketball this season as a foreign player. Tyus has a two-year contract with Ashdod, and if he adapts well to life and the league, he'll be able to register as an Israeli next season.
The national Israeli team could also be an option for the athletic power forward (2.03m ). "If I receive Israeli citizenship and will be able to play for the national team, I probably won't say no," Tyus said.
Until that happens, Tyus is the new addition to a team where most of the players are beginning their second year, after a successful first season in the top tier.
"I think it's easier to blend into a cohesive team where most players know each other," he said. "The other players know the coach and his way of thinking and can help me adjust, and understand where exactly he wants me to be. The players who stayed in Ashdod enjoy the system - that's why they stayed - so I feel I'll blend in. I'm a very athletic and energetic player. I can contribute a few highlight moves but also work hard in the paint. I'm really a hard-working player. My objective, of course, is to do well with the team in the league and try to win the Cup as well. Personally, my aim is to know I gave my all on the court." Tyus' ambitions are justified by the cries of admiration from the court when he puts in his dunks in a shooting session.
Tyus graduated from the University of Florida, second only to Connecticut in the Big East, and made it to the Elite Eight, with Tyus contributing an average 10 points, 6 rebounds and 25 minutes. His success in college basketball boosts his confidence, but he's well aware of the adjustments he will have to make after turning professional.
"I feel that everything happens faster and more accurately," he said. "Here, one concentrates on the player and how he handles the situation. I have more responsibility, not more pressure. I feel more freedom but also self-discipline. In college, the coaches always have their ideas and strict systems."
In Ashod's first two pre-season games, Tyus scored in double figures, but he readily admits he's still getting used to European basketball.
"I think the players here have a better understanding, which also has to do with the fact that they're older and more mature," he said. "I'll have to improve my understanding of the game, play wiser basketball, slow down the pace at times, and sometimes pass by opportunities to use my physique in favor of smarter moves."