Following her unpleasant departure from Maccabi Bnot Ashdod after losing the championship last season, it was only natural that Ashley Shields would take a break — even a short one — from the women's basketball scene in Israel. But last week the 28-year-old guard, who averaged 18.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 3.2 steals per game last season, announced her return for another season, this time with Maccabi Ramat Hen.
Shields left Ashdod this past summer amid suspicions that she and other foreign teammates had smoked cannabis during the final series, which Ashdod lost to Elitzur Ramle. But the bad press did not stop Shields — who says she loves Israel and considers it a second home — from returning. The former WNBA player, who first came to Israel in 2008 and played for Elitzur Netanya for three years before leaving for Dobri Anjeli Kosice in Slovakia, says she feels deep ties Israeli families and friends, from whom she gets a lot of love and support.
“The Israeli league is competitive and challenging,” she says. “Some unpleasant things happened at the end of the 2012-13 season, but I’m a strong person. I moved on because I didn't want the situation to get in the way.”
Last season ended in frustration as 2012 Premier League champion and State Cup holder Ashdod, which had a perfect regular season record, lost the final series to Ramle.
“The team was mentally broken,” she says. “It had lost its motivation. We were tired from the whole season, both physically and mentally. A lot of things were going on off the court, and the team needed the coach more than anyone else to pick the players up.“
But she says that the team’s coach, Edni Dagan, yelled at them when they missed shots or made mistakes during the final series, when they needed him to be positive and supportive instead.
Dagan was much calmer during the 2012 championship run, says Shields. “He’s a wonderful person and I love him, but the Americans and Israelis in the squad needed him more relaxed and to let us come together as a team.”
At the same time, she says she makes no excuses. The team should have taken the championship, but after a long season in which they consistently won, they lost at the worst possible moment.
Two days after the pain of losing at home in Game 5 to Ramle, a blow no less painful struck Shields and two other foreign players on the team, power forward Charde Houston and center Danielle Adams. Ashdod management issued a press release that it was looking into suspicions that some of the team's foreign players, including Shields, had taken drugs during the final series, which apparently affected their performance on the court.
Shields recalls team officials approached them and told them that they had used drugs. “I was surprised, and told them that it wasn't true,” she says.
Speaking out for the first time on the issue, she says she can only speak for herself. “I have never touched drugs. Everyone who knows me knows that I’m a good person and a team player. Every since I started playing in high school, there has never any problem with me.”
The Memphis, Tennessee native says she has no idea where the rumors and suspicions came from. She speculates that it was hard for them to swallow the loss, so they decided to blame the foreign players.
According to Tali Krieff, the president of Maccabi Bnot Ashdod, one of the foreign players came to her house, admitted that the foreign players had smoked pot and apologized for the damage done to the team.
“I don’t know,” says Shields. “I didn’t do it. It’s simply not true. If the team suspected something, why didn't they do a drug test on us?”
Over the summer, of course, Shields did not negotiate a new contract with the team. “I didn’t want to continue there. I thought we were like a family then suddenly they hurt me,” she says.
After the season, Ashdod fired Dagan. The move surprised Shields. “Dagan was an integral part of the system,” she says. “I never though it would happen so fast.”
In general, last year's club of foreigners at Ashdod has broken up. Besides Shields going to Ramat Hen, Brittany Denson — who played two seasons with Shields in Ashdod — went to Ramat Hasharon. Houston, one of the most veteran foreigners in the league, won't be back this season. The only one remaining is Adams, who signed on for another season with Ashdod.
Shields kept in touch with the other foreign players over the summer, stressing they are good friends. However, after the bad feeling in which they ended their season, she finds it surprising that Adams decided to stay. “On the other hand, I’ll happy to see her on the court this season,” she adds.
The person Shields is even happier to see this season in Israel is her husband Tasmin Mitchell, who joined Maccabi Rishon Letzion after playing last season with Russian team Triumph Lyubertsy. She says she is happy that once again the two will be playing in the same country, adding that she really missed him last year because she needs a person who loves and supports her.
The idea that Ramat Hen is not a big club like Ashdod does not bother Shields, she says. “I’m a winner, and I came to Ramat Hen to be a leader. I get along with both management and the coach, Shiki Falah. We’ll take the season one game at a time.”