“Dad, will we take a photograph with Omri Casspi?”
“How tall is Gal Mekel?”
“With there be a game as well?”
“No, it's just a practice session.”
For one morning in Herzliya, the national basketball team agreed to become another family attraction in the long month of August. Instead of a musical at Mini-Israel or a train exhibition in Jerusalem, we opted for Lior Eliyahu and Omri Casspi shooting hoops in a brunchtime practice session. An added attraction for parents: a mighty air conditioner at Hayuval arena.
"It's freezing here," one of the mothers grumbled from the stands.
"They'll be warming up in a minute," her son, with a pen and basketball in hand, quickly assured her.
"They" warmed up in individual fashion. Alex Tyus, in civilian clothes, stretched his legs on the sidelines, Yotam Halperin ran around the court with a black knee guard, and Casspi practiced guavas. While some of the players did stretches ("why are they doing Pilates?"), coach Arik Shivek grabbed the microphone. The crowd, polite and relaxed, applauded as he explained the expected entertainment: mostly offensive moves on half a court.
"See how they move," one father told his child after an almost static pick-and-roll involving Halperin and Yaniv Green. "You should learn their moves."
In basketball terms, there wasn't too much one could learn from this specific session. The kids were satisfied with crumbs such as a Guy Pnini basket from half court, Halperin heading a hoop in, Raviv Limonad slipping and falling, and a rare three-pointer from Eliyahu. As the practice turned more tactical, the spectators lost interest, focusing on small details that acquired new significance: "Look — Naimi already has some yellow in his sneakers."
The players, meanwhile, were losing something else: For some 20 minutes, four out of five attacking moves ended with turnovers, raising an ambivalent conclusion — either their form is shocking since all the players were sloppy, or that the players are really well drilled in the attacking moves and know how to defend against each move. "I miss Gal Mekel," one 10-year-old fan opined, "nobody else is calling the moves."
“Dad, Eliyahu doesn't play for Maccabi anymore?”
“They had differences of opinion.”
“They couldn't reach common ground.”
The end of the session brought on scenes of controlled bedlam. The players autographed photos in advance and the kids were due to go down to court in groups of 20 for a group photo with the national team players. This was a brave effort to create an organized happening, but it was altogether hopeless. After five minutes, the steward took a brave decision, allowing everyone to run down onto the court, "otherwise it would take hours."
Thus the hierarchy of Israeli basketball was revealed without any softening filters. While again one could see how difficult it is to be Omri Casspi — who smiled, signed autographs and posed for a photo with anything that had a pulse, Ben Rice walked alone, apart from an occasional pat in the back or handshake from a kid with a "I know you from somewhere" sort of look. Eliyahu and Yogev Ohayon were also smartphone stars, and if there was an award for patience, Green could have been a worthy recipient.
Apart from the all-too-familiar Israeli intimacy ("What's happening with you next season, huh, Lior?") and the obvious extra centimeters in comparison to Mini-Israel, there was also one truly emotional moment, the sort only children can create. One kid, sporting a Schortsanitis shirt, chose his targets thoughtfully. He didn't ask for a photo or autograph, he simply had a question to the taller players: "As a center who doesn't see much of the ball, what can one do in order to stand out?"
While Green responded with a professional answer ("Try to get to the right places on court that will enable the point guard to find you"), Ido Kozikaro, whose little kid walked around with a Hulk doll telling everyone that it was an exact replica of his father — a fact no one could easily dismiss — responded from his own experience as a child: "You should just do the important things, take rebounds and do defense. And if anyone tells you you're not a good player, don't believe him."
Once, many years ago, someone tolk Kozikaro he wasn't any good. Now, years later, there are only three players who have been capped for Israel more times. If in a few years the national team will boast of a local Sofo, we'll know who helped him make it big.
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