Basketball NBA Refugees in Israel A Brief Respite in Israel

Coaches welcome players for short-term impact and crowd pleasing ability.

Jerry Mittleman
Jerry Mittleman

The addition of locked-out NBA players to the team rosters of the Israeli Super League has added a totally unique dynamic to the current basketball season.

At the moment, about six percent of the locked-out NBA players - many of them international players who have returned overseas - are plying their trade in foreign leagues. Most of them are on two-month contracts or with open escape clauses, which allow them to leave as soon the NBA reaches an agreement with the Players Association.

Avery Bradley, who left college early, is trying to gain experience here for the NBA.Credit: Nimrod Glickman

Jordan Farmar (Maccabi Tel Aviv), Avery Bradley (Hapoel Jerusalem), J.J. Hickson (Bnei Hasharon Herzliya) and Craig Brackins (Maccabi Ashdod) are the four locked-out players currently appearing in the local league, while Trevor Booker, also of Ashdod, is waiting to recover from a pre-season injury.

All of these players have chosen to keep playing rather than sit out the lock-out like their colleagues, and each has his own reason. For example, Farmar, who is Jewish, has strong ties to Israel because he was raised by an Israeli stepfather. Bradley, who played only one college season at Texas before turning pro, and then lost most of his rookie season with the Boston Celtics due to injury, is playing to get added experience.

While none of these players are of superstar "instant impact" caliber, all are expected to make a significant contribution to their new teams. Though none of the players or coaches interviewed by Haaretz claimed to be overly concerned by the lock-out, the specter of the labor dispute, and just when it will end, still hovers in the background.

Hickson had 20 points in his debut with Bnei Hasharon on Sunday, but his team was still blown out by host Hapoel Holon. Farmar, whose adjustment has been slowed by injuries, fouled out with just six points against Barak Netanya last night (see story). Bradley and Brackins are all still getting acclimated. According to Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt, "Any player who hasn't played in Europe, even an NBA player, has to be expected to go through an adjustment period to European basketball, and the pace of adjusting is usually connected to the player's attitude."

The difference between style of play and rules has often been cited.

International basketball allows a lot more contact than the NBA, and the style of play is basically team oriented rather than based on stars and individual talent. Foreign players cite the Israeli league as very, very up-tempo, which makes it a fun place to play, and the rabid fans and small intimate arenas are reminiscent for them of high-school basketball in America.

Brackins has probably made the quickest adjustment so far, scoring an impressive 23 points in his second league game last week against Elitzur Netanaya. "He came here to learn and invest," says his coach at Ashdod, Ofer Berkovicz. "And he's been improving all the time."

Israel enjoys an excellent reputation among American basketball players these days. The abundance of good weather, good food, beautiful women and English speakers, plus a more than acceptable level of basketball, has been passed through the grapevine and makes players choose la dolce vita here despite the risks of a Katyusha crashing down on a local arena. When asked, Brackins explained his choice of Israel over offers from other foreign leagues. "I have a lot of friends who have played here and every one of them simply raved about this place," he said.

Local teams are buying into this two-month rent-a-pro program after years of experience of foreign players coming over and leaving in mid-season for one reason or another. They go and another player is brought in to replace him. According to Berkovicz, "We see Craig (Brackins ) as an important addition, but it's clear we aren't building the team around him."

Reasons for using locked-out players can vary from team to team. Bnei Hasharon coach Roi Hagai told Haaretz, "We are doing this as a favor to our fans. It gives them a chance to see an NBA player right in front of their eyes rather than on TV. After all, we are involved in show business here, and it also advances the league."

As usual, Maccabi Tel Aviv is thinking two steps ahead. When asked if they have a contingency plan for the day Farmar leaves, coach Blatt told Haaretz: "That was one of the reasons we brought in Theodoros Papoloukos."

Regarding Farmar, he added, "As a Jewish player, with a strong connection to Israel, we are rolling out the red carpet to Jordan in the hope that he'll come back later in his career."



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