WASHINGTON – In the first quarter of their New Year’s Day game against the Washington Wizards, a crosscourt pass by Dallas Mavericks forward Shawn Marion ended up in the hands of his teammate, Gal Mekel.
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Unfortunately for both men, Mekel was on the bench at the time – for the entire game, for that matter.
It was the eighth of Dallas’ first 32 games this season in which Mekel didn’t make it off the bench – a consequence of the difficulty allocating playing time to Mekel and another Mavericks rookie, Shane Larkin, said head coach Rick Carlisle. Both men back up the starter at point guard, José Calderón.
Mekel, whose signing for Dallas last summer made him the second Israeli to reach the NBA after Omri Casspi, shrugged off the difficulties in earning time on the court, saying after the game that he stays optimistic and works hard to capitalize on playing opportunities that present themselves.
The presence of the 25-year-old Petah Tikva native on Dallas’ roster didn’t register among fans at the game here in Washington. There were no sightings of outwardly evident Jewish groups who might use the national holiday to see Mekel in the Mavericks’ only scheduled visit to Washington this season.
Their apathy contrasted with the enthusiastic reception greeting Israel’s first NBA player, Casspi, during the Sacramento Kings’ visits here during the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons, when Israeli embassy employees, synagogue and school groups displayed enormous Israeli flags in the seating bowl and cheered for him at every opportunity.
Last Wednesday, members of a group of 25 Jewish teenagers visiting from Panama said they had no idea who Mekel is, and that they’d simply shown up to watch an NBA game (the Mavericks triumphed 87-78).
But neither disinterest at one game, nor the mounting number of “DNPCD”s on the statistics sheet – shorthand for “Did not play; coach’s decision” – next to Mekel’s name can obscure some of the rugged rookie’s early successes, including scoring 11 points at Houston in the second game of the season.
To Carlisle, Mekel’s driving basket and a three-pointer in a victory at Portland (as of January 5, the Trail Blazers are tied for most wins in the league) were perhaps his greatest moments to date.
“He has a presence, an energy about him, a desire,” said Carlisle. “It’s a total approach. He’s developed great habits.”
Mekel himself said he’s “getting used to the pace and scheduling in the league, and I think I’ve acclimated well.”
“When I’ve played, I’ve done well and had many good games," he added. "Lately, I’ve played less, and I have to deal with it. I’m not a star, and there’s some uncertainty regarding playing time, but I have to stay ready so that whenever I’m on the court, I can contribute,” Mekel said in the locker room following the victory. Dallas’ current record stands at 19-14, eighth best in the NBA’s very strong Western Conference.
“As a professional, I want to play, of course – and I’m sure every professional thinks this way," he admitted. "I’m patient, and the coach is the one who decides, and that is the way it is everywhere – whether in the Israeli league or in the NBA.”
Last year, of course, turned out perfectly for Mekel on both the team and individual levels. His Maccabi Haifa side won the Israeli championship by upsetting Maccabi Tel Aviv, and Mekel earned the regular season’s Most Valuable Player award.
Mekel's performance caught the eye of several NBA teams, including the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic, but ultimately Mekel signed a three-year contract with Dallas.
As in the NBA, Mekel is making the effort to settle in with Dallas' Jewish community. He’s participated in several local programs, including running a basketball clinic for children at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas and a Hanukkah menorah-lighting celebration. During the preseason, he attended Yom Kippur services at a Dallas synagogue.
“They’ve welcomed me so nicely and warmly,” Mekel said of Dallas Jewry.
The two-hour JCC event included Mekel being presented with a ceremonial key to the community. In attendance were Mavericks president Donnie Nelson and several assistant coaches.
Missing Mom's cooking
Following the clinic, Mekel and some 120 children (ages 6 to 18) sat in a circle, with the player fielding their questions.
One child asked what Mekel missed most from Israel. His mother’s cooking, he replied.
Mekel is “very easy on the eyes, is very lovely and charming, very approachable and sincere,” said Ashley Bundis, the JCC’s marketing director, who arranged the December 15 event. “It’s a very big deal that we have an Israeli [player] in Dallas, and we wanted to welcome him into the Jewish community.”
Not that Mekel is completely on an island – at least when the team is playing home games – since his longtime girlfriend, Danyelle Sims, accompanied him from Israel to Dallas.
Also, there have been the three regular-season games – two of which Dallas won – that Mekel’s already played against the Houston Rockets and Casspi, who joined the team last summer as a backup forward.
The two have been friends since they played together for Israeli junior teams.
With Casspi now in his fifth NBA season, Mekel has an Israeli landsman to call for advice and support. Day-to-day, his teammates provide encouragement. One source is Mekel’s point-guard rival, Larkin, who said “there’s no selfishness” in their competition – that, in fact, it makes each player better.
Another helpful Maverick is the team leader and a former NBA MVP, Dirk Nowitzki, who recalled his own adjustment to the league after arriving from Germany in 1998.
“I told him, ‘You’ve got to fight through the first year. The first year is tough on anybody,’” said Nowitzki. “He’s early at the gym, and he lifts weights like a maniac. We even call him Hercules. He works harder than anybody.”
In the locker room of an ethnically diverse team, Mekel “fits right in,” said Nowitzki. “He’s a good dude. What I love about him is that he’s all about the team. He obviously has not gotten much of an opportunity lately, but he’s always the first guy off the bench, he doesn’t complain, he’s not whining. He just comes in the next day and works even harder. Those kind of team guys are what you need.”