Israeli Basketball Ace Gal Mekel Aims for Stardom in the Lone Star State

Point guard Gal Mekel officially introduced as a player for the Dallas Mavericks, becoming the second Israeli to join the NBA after Omri Casspi.

On Wednesday, the tentative word “agreement” – which had followed Gal Mekel and Dallas around since last week – became something much more concrete. The Israeli point guard signed a three-year contract with the Mavericks and was introduced at a press conference along with his jersey (No. 33) and two other rookies – Shane Larkin and Ricky Ledo.

“This is an outstanding organization,” said Mekel. “I know that Dallas watched me at several of last season’s games in Israel and was very interested in me. They made me a good offer, and I like the city and the people. It was an easy choice for me. Since I arrived two days ago, I’ve had a wonderful experience.”

It seems the experience is only just beginning. Mekel said he met his future teammate, Dirk Nowitzki, at the team’s training facility, with the German proving very friendly and inquisitive. Mekel and his father also had a chance to dine with the Mavs’ head coach, Rick Carlisle.

“He made an outstanding impression on me,” said the 25-year-old Mekel, who is swapping Maccabi Haifa for Dallas. “I didn't take it for granted that, on my first night in Dallas, the head coach would want to have dinner with me and my dad, and hear about my background. This isn’t someone who looks down at you; he looks you straight in the eye. It was important to me that I made it clear that I have a lot of patience and am willing to learn and work hard. I’m not in any rush. He’s already talked to me about several aspects of my game that he’d like me to work on.”

For his part, Carlisle was also full of praise. “Gal has a great deal of experience, not only in Israel but also in Italy,” he said at the press conference. “He made a good impression on us with every step of the journey he took to get here. He was one of the few who managed to take the championship away from Maccabi Tel Aviv. He’s got a great resume. I hope we make the same ‘mistake’ with him that we did with Nowitzki 15 years ago.”

Mekel was asked what adjustments he’d have to make in transitioning from European to American basketball. “I think that, at every stage in your career when you’re facing a new challenge, you have to make adjustments,” he responded. “It happened when I went from the youth league to college ball, and again from college ball to the professional European league. I’m sure I’ll have to make adjustments in terms of speed and athleticism, in order to handle the level of NBA play. I think the fact that in Europe, too, we run a lot of pick-and-roll routines will help me.

"I told the coach that I’m ready to learn and that I’m a long-distance runner," he added. "I have time and I’m sure everyone around me will help. Hard work pays off, and that’s why I feel confident. I loved the Israeli league; it’s a great league with a lot of American players. At the end of the day, basketball is basketball. It may take a little bit of time, but I’ll get to the level I need to be at.”

The second Israeli in the NBA was also asked about the first. The fact that Omri Casspi will be playing for the Houston Rockets this season promises a double derby – Israeli and Texan. “Even without us, there's a first-class rivalry between Dallas and Houston,” said Mekel. “I’m sure that with us it’ll be even more interesting. I’m sure it’s going to get really intense and a great experience for the state.”

Later on, in a conference call with Israeli journalists, Mekel referred to the help he received from Casspi before signing with Dallas: “I spoke with Omri several times. This is the right forum to thank him for having opened the door for me. He’s the pioneer. He’s also the one who put me in touch with my personal coach, David Thorpe - without whom I’d never have made it here.”

Now that he’s there, Mekel will have to get to work. His first test in the Mavs’ uniform will take place this Saturday, in Las Vegas, in a game with Sacramento as part of the NBA summer league.

“I don’t think I have to think too far ahead,” Mekel said, when asked about his dreams. “I have to focus on the present. I’m joining the team and will have to study my teammates. For most of my career I’ve needed time to adjust, and then it gets easier. My first goal is to play well in the summer league, make a good impression, and gain confidence. I don’t really know what to expect in my first season here. I’m willing to learn and hope that good things will happen. I can’t say that I want a certain number of playing minutes or specific stats. It’s a new experience. I’ll work hard, stay positive, and wait for things to happen when they happen.”

Mekel, who will be accompanied in the United States by girlfriend Danielle and (for the immediate future) his father, said he wasn’t surprised that the team had signed other point guards since signing him. “Let’s be realistic,” he said, “I didn’t think I’d be the first point guard and get 25 minutes on the floor in every game. After Dwight Howard decided not to sign, the team was left with a lot of money and several spots on the roster. I’m sure I can learn a lot from Jose Calderon and Devin Harris, but for now I’m concentrating on coming to the summer league feeling relaxed and doing what I know how to do. That’s what I’ve always done.”

AP
AP