Premier League Basketball / Five More Days

Jerusalem’s New Big Red Man

Art Parakhouski is a sight for sore eyes in the capital, which hasn’t seen a center like him in over a decade

Israeli basketball’s Big Red Machine finally has a really big guy to lead the team.

“A few days ago a kid came up to me, and told me that since 2000 there has not been a big guy as big and powerful as me,” says Hapoel Jerusalem’s new center from Belarus, Artsiom Parakhouski.

The last “big guy” was probably Aleksandar Gilic, a 2.07-meter-tall Bosnian center who made 12 appearances for Hapoel Jerusalem during the 1999-2000 season. Since then, Hapoel has had plenty of tall Europeans who were 2.10 meters tall or taller, but not a true powerhouse like Parakhouski, who is 2.11 meters tall and weighs in at 117 kilos.

Parakhouski, whose friends call him Art, was born in Minsk to a pair of athletes 26 years ago. His father coaches the Belarus national athletics team and has competed in a heptathlon. His younger sister is a swimmer. Parakhouski started with swimming but quickly switched to soccer. He was not introduced to basketball until he was 15. At that point he had to make a choice.

“I felt that I had nothing to look for in soccer, so I went with basketball,” he recalls. “In high school I played basketball here and there, but then I grew a lot within two years, and I felt that I need to make the most of it for basketball. I was also interested in trying something new. I really started from the ground up, and I started to develop.”

The turning point in his short career came in the summer of 2005. He was not yet 18 and he was playing for his country’s under-20 team in the Junior European Championships. His average of 5.1 points and 6.6 rebounds in just 18 minutes caught the eye of Ali Ton, an assistant coach at Binghamton University. On Ton’s advice, Parakhouski went west.

“In Belarus, the popular sports are hockey and soccer,” says Parakhouski. “I knew that basketball was developed in the United States, and there I would be able to develop.”

He started out at Southern Idaho, a community college, where he suffered from culture shock. “It was the first time that I had left Belarus, and I only knew basic words in English,” he recalls. “During the first two months in college I simply couldn’t understand anything, and I didn’t have anyone to talk to.”

But Parakhouski got used to the English and made tremendous progress on the court. After two years, during which he averaged 10.1 points and 6.4 rebounds per game, he enrolled at Radford University in Virginia, where Ton was serving as an assistant coach. The head coach was Brad Greenberg, who now coaches Maccabi Haifa. (Ton is now associate coach at UC-Irvine.)

Parakhouski developed into a true star under Greenberg’s tutelage. He was named Big South Conference player of the year twice in a row, in 2009 and 2010. He finished first in the NCAA in rebounding, with 13.4 per game during his senior season, averaging 21.4 points per game.

“I had four wonderful years in college,” he says. “It was a huge experience, and I also developed a lot as a basketball player. I reached the goals I had set for myself when I left for the United States.”

In the summer of 2010, Parakhouski awaited the NBA draft with high hopes, only to suffer a big blow. “A lot of people made me believe my senior year that I would be chosen in the draft, and it didn’t happen for all kinds of reasons,” he says. “It was a very tough time for me. I was very disappointed. I didn’t know what would happen to me, although I knew I would return to Europe.”

Parakhouski indeed returned, playing for VEF Riga in the Latvian league, and averaging 8 points and 5.3 rebounders per game in the Eurocup. In the summer of 2010, he thought he had moved up when he signed with Italian club Cantu, but he was released before the season opened, in favor of Giorgi Shermadini.

A sensitive guy, Parakhouski took it hard. The experience influenced his next choice of team. “It was the first time I went through something like this,” he says. “I was down. I had offers from all kinds of plays, mainly from Turkey, but I decided to be close to home. I went to Budivelnik Kiev, which is very close to Minsk. It was easy for me to adjust. It’s a nice league, and they also play in the terrific VTB League.” He averaged 9.5 points and 6.0 rebounds per game there. Last year, he moved to Olin Edirne in Turkey, where his numbers rose to 12.1 points and 6.5 rebounders per game.

So why did he come to Israel this year?

“I didn’t know Israel well,” he says. “While three years ago I came here with Riga, my memory is not so good, and I don’t remember Israel enough. I came mostly because of Coach Greenberg, who mentored me for two years in college. I wanted to play for a good team that plays in the Eurocup. I understood that there is new management and ownership here, so why not help them and help myself, too?”

In three preseason games, Parakhouski scored 13 points, but talks mainly about defense. “I hope to contribute with my physical presence in the lanes, to defend as strongly as possible and to block shots,” he says. Parakhouski avoids sweeping statements, however. “The goal is to give my all on the court, to take it one step at a time, day-by-day, and see what happens,” he says.

The center has only stayed one season at each of his previous teams, and he has signed a one-year contract with Jerusalem. He is modest but ambitious. “It’s not easy reaching the Euroleague,” he says. “A lot of teams change each season. Not everyone has a license like Maccabi Tel Aviv to play there. Mostly well-known players are there. I’ll get there eventually, perhaps with Jerusalem.”

Nimrod Glickman