These days Israelis refer to the Cleveland Cavaliers by the collective noun “we.” With Israel, often jokingly referred to as the 51st state, it’s fitting that Israelis would want an NBA franchise of their own. When American-Israeli coach David Blatt was appointed head coach of the Cavs, Israelis immediately adopted his team and now that he has led the Cavaliers to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, the country’s intense interest in their fortunes has reached a fevered pitch.
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The Cavs and their quest for an NBA title, has became a popular topic of conversation in Israel these days, a refreshing alternative to the gloom of local politics and the loom of what’s seen as an inevitable next war. The other day I was at a business meeting with a man who I had met for the 1st time who knew that I was connected to basketball. He opened our discussion with “Nu, how far do you think ‘we’ can go?”
NBA games are usually broadcast around 3 A.M. Israel time and many bleary eyed followers get up early to tune in. Yet this year’s playoffs are contributing to the quality of life of many viewers, despite the sleep deprivation involved. Last week, a psychologist friend excitedly texted me that the current state of basketball affairs encouraged her to stay up late and for the first time enjoy a Cavs-Bulls playoff game with her husband, providing a healthy new twist to their relationship.
For many years the anticipation and wait for the first Israeli to make it to the NBA was akin to the quest for the Holy Grail. It began in the early 1980s when Maccabi Tel Aviv legend Mickey Berkowitz tried out for the Atlanta Hawks and New Jersey Nets. It continued in the 1990s as Israelis followed Doron Sheffer’s exploits at the University of Connecticut in the hopes that his career would lead him to the NBA. Sheffer was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers but they never committed to him.
When Oded Katash, probably the most talented player that Israel ever produced, signed a two-year contract with the New York Knicks in 1999, it seemed that the quest was over. But a months’ long lockout of players dissuaded Katash and he returned to Israel before the season could begin.
The quest finally ended six years ago when the Sacramento Kings drafted and signed Omri Casspi. Though Israeli fans have followed Casspi throughout his six-year NBA career, this pales in comparison to the excitement generated by Blatt, who is coaching LeBron James, the league’s biggest star to a possible NBA title.
Rooting for Blatt and the Cavs has become a new form of Zionism. When I recently expressed my personal doubts that Cleveland would get pass Chicago in their playoff series, a truck driver that I was chatting with retorted: “I’m going with Cleveland — I am patriot.”