Israeli Teen Basketball Ace Has High Hopes

Growing up in Eilat, Ofir Banet didn’t even know Israel had a women’s basketball team. Now, the 19-year-old is in it and could become a giant in the Israeli game.

Female basketball player Ofir Banet shoots during a practice match between the Israeli national team and Ramat Hen, November 5, 2015.
Oded Karni/Israel Basketball Association

The opening round of the 2013-14 season of the Israeli Women’s Basketball Super League delivered a surprise, with newly promoted Bnot Herzliya beating second-place Maccabi Ashdod. One of Herzliya’s standouts was Ofir Banet, an unknown teen who scored 10 points, making 5 out of 6 throws.

“I didn’t know where I was and who I was facing,” she recalls. “I hadn’t heard of half of the players I was playing with or half the ones I was playing against. None of them knew who I was, either; they didn’t expect it from a 17-year-old girl.” Two years later, this girl wonder is on the national team.

As a youngster, Banet played soccer. But in the third grade she joined a basketball club at the regional school on Kibbutz Yotvata. “I was the only girl,” she says. “At some stage they decided to put me in the junior league team, and I played with boys there, too.”

Basketball officials from central Israel got wind of Banet’s talent from the Sal Ha’emek Ha’adom basketball summer camp at Yotvata. “When I was in eighth grade, a coach from Elitzur Holon saw me and called up my mother to ask if I could come try out. I got calls from other teams, too,” relates Banet, who presumably did not feel ready and chose to stay in the junior league, on a mixed team. “At that age I didn’t know what I wanted and I didn’t even know there was women’s basketball in Israel. I didn’t know anything and hadn’t been exposed to anything,” she admits.

A chance visit to a Bnot Herzliya B Team practice, during a family trip, changed all that. “The girls were nice to me, I felt that Herzliya was a cool place.” So cool, in fact, that she made it a central part of her life.

“For a year and a half we had this arrangement where every Monday I flew from Eilat to the center, and the same cabdriver picked me up at Sde Dov airport,” in Tel Aviv, “and took me to Hayovel Arena,” in Herzliya. “I would sleep over at the home of [female basketball player] Sean Levy, who plays with me in Herzliya now. In the morning I trained with the women’s A Team, in the evening either practice or a game, staying over that night and on Wednesday morning I’d fly back to Eilat. Tuesday was a workday at my school, so I didn’t miss any classes. After a while, the flights and the staying with another family got to me, the [Israel Basketball Association] also advised me to move ahead. We decided to take a big step and move to the center of the country. We moved my grandmother, who had lived in Rishon Letzion, to an apartment in Herzliya, and I lived with her.”

Banet became a true “Herzliyan.” Her affiliation with one of the country’s leading junior leagues helped her, at just 14, get an invitation to the first round of the national team of Project Athena – a government program to promote women in sports. Around a year after that, she joined the National Youth (Cadets) League, beginning a five-year streak where she averaged between 7.3 and 11.1 points per game. A year later, she played a major role in the team’s promotion to the top tier.

In 2012, in the wake of the team’s withdrawal from the merger with Ra’anana/Bnot Hasharon, Herzliya joined the national league. Banet, 16 at the time, was part of the team that won the association cup and was promoted to the Super League. She began her debut season with a dazzling display of crossover dribbles against Ashdod. The rest of her season was more subdued, but in the second season, at 18, she was promoted to the starting five when the team decided against bringing a foreign player into her No. 2 position.

Female basketball player Ofir Banet (center) dribbles past an opponent during a practice match for Israel against Ramat Hen, November 5, 2015
Oded Karni/Israel Basketball Association

Banet isn’t the only big talent to join the league in recent years, but she seems to be in a hothouse all her own. Under manager Amit Hellman, the team took it upon itself to nurture Banet and to grow alongside her. “What Herzliya has done really cannot be taken for granted – they go above and beyond for me,” she says. “Private training sessions, a fitness coach, a gym that’s open to me 24 hours a day. Anything I ask for, including extra support, I get. Everyone is very generous to me.”

Expectations come together with the professional support. People who watched the team’s games last season saw a shy, delicate young woman who suffered an infinite number of tirades from head coach Gilad Katz. “They say that the moment the coach doesn’t yell at you, it means he doesn’t care about you. It’s part of the package, it’s his job. Sometimes I need to be woken up,” says Banet, smiling.

Katz and the team reaped the dividends in the shape of the national cup. Banet was terrific in the semifinal against Ramat Hen, when her contribution exceeded the 8 points and 2 assists she made. In the final against Ramat Hasharon, she scored 7 points. “I had a difficult season, with crises and injuries,,” she reflects, “but in the end, it all came together mentally and physically in the cup and playoffs.”

This season, Banet has already become one of the league’s leading players. In the first three games, all of which Herzliya won, she averaged 10 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2 assists. “I was well-prepared and that shows in my self-confidence. The team believes in me, and the burden of proof is on me,” says Banet, who turns 20 next June.

She is a typical hoop scorer. She shoots well from outside the three-point line and is also strong enough to get close to the basket. Unlike other skilful young women before her – some of whom allowed themselves to be rushed, while others struggled to deliver when the pressure was on – Banet is a solid player who generally makes smart decisions and has the necessary courage. For proof, look no further than the 3-point upset she scored less than a minute from the end of overtime on the way to victory against No. 1, Ashdod.

What distinguishes her from most of her Israeli peers is that she has only one position, No. 2. “I want to develop the No.1 position as well, to be a combo guard,” she declares. “At my height [1 meter 68 centimeters], it’s possible to do well in the league, but it’s difficult to reach the highest levels.”

Last summer, Banet was one of six players on the junior women’s national team to be invited to the senior team. She and Tal Lev were the only ones to make the final squad that played in Turkey last Saturday in the qualifiers for the 2017 Women’s European Championship. “At first I didn’t know how it would go. It’s a huge honor to be with Shay Doron, who I worshipped when I was young. And with Liad [Suez Karni], every opportunity to play alongside her is a gift. There are players here who have been on the national team for years, and just sitting next to them, listening to them and taking in all that knowledge is huge. They welcomed me and Tal Lev very nicely, they got us set up right away.”

The game in Turkey was a difficult experience for the team because of the hostile atmosphere, especially for a new player who received four minutes of playing time. “I was really excited about facing a big, powerful and hostile crowd for the first time. It touched me, it moved me. When I got up to play, maybe I was a little in shock. I have no experience at those levels. Up to now, I played on the B Team of the junior national team, and suddenly I’m standing across from top Euroleague players and I have to guard a No. 2 position player who’s 1.90 meters. It’s a completely different size and style from what I know.”

Following the 72-53 defeat to Turkey, Israel suffered a second defeat in Wednesday’s home game against Romania, with the visitors winning by the narrowest of margins, 78-77. “For me, the most important thing is winning, I care less about what Ofir does,” Banet said prior to the game. “If I’m given an opportunity, I’ll try to go on with more caution and to learn from the mistakes I made in defense. Anyone watching me tonight will know that I give 100 percent for the team, even if it’s only for a second.

If she continues to advance, Banet will be a leading player on the national team within a few years. And her ambition doesn’t stop there: “I was super-excited to see what Turkey’s players were doing. My dream is to play in a big Euroleague team, I’m not afraid to say that.”