Na'ama Shafir, a 'Once-in-a-generation' Player in Women's Hoops

With an elastic band on her shoulders for reasons of modesty, hoopster Shafir returns from the United States, ready to make an impact on the Israeli women's national basketball team.

Na'ama Shafir only got the go-ahead to represent Israel in the qualifying rounds of EuroBasket 2015 on the day before the national team's first game. The four-nation tournament, which is being played in Ramle, will determine which countries qualify for the 2015 edition of the European basketball championships for women. With two wins - against Germany and Macedonia - Israel has already booked its place in the next stage.

But Shafir almost didn't play any part in the games. The only religious player on the Israeli roster, she needed special dispensation from FIBA, the world governing body of basketball. The Israel Basketball Association, along with the FIBA representative at the tournament, reached a compromise, whereby Shafir would wear an elastic bandage on her shoulders, ostensibly for medical reasons, but, in actual fact, to safeguard her modesty.

According to IBA chairman Yaakov Ben Shoshan, this is a much better solution than the one that FIBA came up with two years ago, when all of the Israeli women played with elastic bandages, which severely restricted their movement. "It's important to me," Shafir told Haaretz last week. "Everyone has their own boundaries and I believe that everyone has the right to act according to their conscience. I don't feel that it's right for me to play in a skimpy vest."

This is not the only area in which religion has caused something of a headache for the IBA; several teams from religious schools, for example, have refused to compete against rivals which include female players on their rosters.

Shafir, who was born into a religious family, used to play on the boys' team for the national-religious community in Hoshaya in the Jezreel Valley. "I played in the local council's league," the 23-year-old point guard says. "It was a huge help when I decided to make a career in basketball. From a religious perspective, there's no problem with it at all."

In the ninth grade, Shafir joined the Jezreel Valley women's team, which was one of the leading teams in the country and where she played alongside national team colleague Bar Galinski. Together, they won several individual and team honors and were both called up to the national team. Five years ago, Shafir rejected a lucrative professional contract with Elitzur Ramle, opting instead to move to the United States to play college hoops. She ended up, of all places, in Toledo, Ohio, where she majored in business.

No practice on Shabbat

"The issue of modesty wasn't a problem in college," she says. "They bent over backwards to help me. I didn't have to go to practice on Shabbat. At first, I was a little uncomfortable with it, because I felt like I was getting special treatment. Over time, though, it felt normal. The other girls asked me a lot of questions and I shared my experiences with them. Now they know a lot more about Judaism and Israel. They also came to visit me in Israel last summer."

Shafir was a hit on the court for the University of Toledo as well. Firstly, she started all 139 of the Rockets' games she participated in - something unheard of at any level of basketball in the United States. In her second season, she had an average of 11.7 points per game and 2.8 assists, which she improved upon during the following three seasons. She was one of the team's most consistent performers but, more importantly, she knew when to put on a big show. In the 2011 WNIT championship game - where she was selected as tournament MVP - she scored 40 points against USC, the second-highest individual score in her school's history. She was selected in the All-MAC team four years in a row and was twice a regional finalist for the WBCA Coaches' All-America Team.

"I spent five incredible years in Toledo," she says. "I met some wonderful people and have made friends for life. It was very hard for me to leave. It's hard to explain what a wonderful time I had there."

Even before she became pro, Shafir was a sought-after player. Last week, she decided to join Israeli champion Elitzur Ramle. "It was down to intuition," she explains, "and my gut told me to join Ramle. [Coach] Eden Inbar is one of the main reasons. He was my coach for two years in the national girl's team. I admire him a lot and I think he's a great coach."

Shafir brings new blood to the national team, which is largely comprised of players who have been teammates for years. They are friends on and off the court and they have similar lifestyles. Shafir, who is more used to having friends from her own background, says she does not feel out of place, however. "I am having a great time socially. It's a lot of fun to be part of the national team," she says. "I have religious friends, I have secular friends and I have non-Jewish friends. And I have all of the friends I grew up with - from all walks of life."

While the rest of her teammates spent Saturday in a Tel Aviv hotel, ahead of Saturday night's game against Macedonia, Shafir spent the Shabbat with Katia Levitsky, who owns an apartment in Ramle, since the game was due to tip off 17 minutes after the end of Jewish day of rest. "Katia's apartment is walking distance from arena," Shafir says. "If there's a practice session on Saturday morning, I can walk there and watch. Obviously, I wouldn't participate." As the youngest guard on the Israeli roster, and coming home from five years of college hoops, it will take Shafir time to acclimatize to the European game. Having said that, the incredible talent she showed in the national girl's teams and elsewhere should make her one of the best players Israel has ever produced.

Eli Rabi, head coach of the women's national team, believes that she will go far. "She's got that winning combination of huge talent and the right mentality," he says. She thinks about others before she thinks about herself. She's a once-in-a-generation player."

Sharon Bukov