Tallest Man in Israel Aims High: ‘I’m Not Ashamed to Say I Want to Reach the NBA’

As a boy, Gilad Levy was called ‘Giraffe’ and as an adolescent he moved to Spain to find opponents his own height. No wonder the 2.20-meter-tall basketball player has high hopes

Arie Livnat
Arie Livnat
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Gilad Levy playing for the young Israel side.
Gilad Levy playing for the young Israel side.Credit: FIBA.COM
Arie Livnat
Arie Livnat

Gilad Levy sees things that a lot of other basketball players – and Israelis in general – miss. That’s what happens when you see the world from a height of 2.20 meters (7 feet, 2 inches).

“As far as I know, I’m the tallest person in Israel,” says the 20-year-old center. However, Levy, who hails from the southern coastal city of Ashdod, faces some fierce competition for that title in his own family.

“My ‘big’ brother is 2.10 meters, the second-oldest is 2.18 meters and my little brother, who’s 16, is 2 meters. My dad is 1.94 meters and my mom’s 1.90 meters,” he says. “It’s special to be the tallest family in the country. It’s fun that people are excited to see you, that they ask for a photo and ask you questions. Since I signed with Hapoel Jerusalem, people are recognizing me.”

Levy will play with Hapoel Jerusalem this season, having warmed up this summer by helping Israel reach the final four of the European U20 Championship, where they lost in the semifinal to eventual winner Spain.

Levy knows, or at least has seen, more than most others his age. When he was 16, he moved to the development academy of Estudiantes in Madrid, to play against opponents who were closer to his height. After three years competing at a low level, last season he graduated to a higher league where the competition was tougher. In 15 minutes of playing time, he averaged 8.3 points and 5.8 rebounds. “I fit in just fine, I think my play was up to that level,” he says. “If I would have received more opportunities, I could have proven myself more. But I think I made a more significant leap than in the first three years.”

Gilad Levy. Probably the tallest man in Israel.Credit: FIBA.COM

In order to improve, he put in the hours either on court or in the gym. “Every day of the week, I had three practices a day. On Thursdays, there were four,” he recounts. “I would get up at 8 A.M., go to a personal training session in the gym, go home, go back to the court at 2 P.M. for a personal skills practice and then have a team practice in the evening. Some days, instead of the fitness training there was athletics training. On Thursday, I had all four types of training sessions.”

He describes himself as “a good pick-and-roll player and a good player in the paint [i.e., the area around the offensive hoop]. If I’m focused and doing things right, I can dominate the paint. I’d say I’m pretty physical – though some might disagree. I don’t look that strong, but I have inner strength. I need to improve my running and athleticism, to be more dominant on defense, to block shots.”

Levy has always been very tall, but as a youngster this made it tough for him socially.

“There was some teasing, and as a little kid I had a short fuse. [Other kids] called me a giraffe and put up a sign: ‘Giraffes not allowed.’ I tried to ignore that stuff. I am who I am. I’m not going to change, and I don’t want to change. Even if someone did something bad, I looked at it as a hurdle, as something I could grow from.”

He attended a religious elementary school and middle school until ninth grade, when he moved to the Gilboa/Maayanot Academy in the Galilee. Most of his friends now are from there, and are a mix of religious and secular.

Levy himself is religious. “I’m a big believer, I believe in God. I’m religious in every way; I pray every morning. In Spain, I never ate anything that wasn’t kosher. In the first two years, I got food from kosher catering. The last two years, I cooked for myself. In Madrid, there are shops that sell kosher meat and fish. For away games, I brought cooked food in containers. After the game, when we went to a restaurant for a team meal, they warmed it up for me. In Barcelona and Valencia, where there’s a small Jewish community, they arranged food for me. The team was accommodating of my Shabbat observance.

Gilad Levy in action for Israel, who reached the semifinals of the U20 European Championship.Credit: FIBA.COM

“All the rest of the week we practiced at 9 P.M., but on Fridays the practice was at 3 P.M. so I’d have time to get ready and go to services and Shabbat dinner. In the mornings, I went to shul and afterward I ate lunch with an Italian Jewish family there who adopted me. On Passover, my family came to see me.”

Wherever he goes in the world, including Podgorica in Montenegro, where the European Championship took place recently, arrangements are made for his religious needs.

Great expectations

On the court itself, Levy has yet to rack up big numbers. In the U16 European Championship four years ago, he scored 10 points and made seven rebounds. In the European Youth Championship a year later, he averaged 5.9 points and 5.5 rebounds. Last year, at the Challenger Tournament that replaced the European Championship, he averaged 4.8 points and 2.8 rebounds. “I believe in my work and in what I’m doing,” he says. “It will come.”

His rare height, combined with the fact that he is returning from four years abroad in a country that is a basketball powerhouse, is creating certain expectations of Levy.

“People want to see what I did and how I’m doing now that I’m returning,” he says. “People are starting to know my name. I hope to meet people’s expectations, but I’m more focused on meeting my own expectations of myself. It will happen gradually, on my time. I want to do great things, to show people that I’m worth it.”

The Israel U20 national team lining up before a match. Even among fellow players, Gilad Levy stands out.Credit: FIBA.COM

His return to Israel is tied to his being drafted in the Israel Defense Forces, which had been deferred for two years. Next month, he will be in a different kind of uniform. “If it weren’t for that, I would have stayed in Spain or gone somewhere else in Europe,” he admits.

He received plenty of offers from teams in Israel but says he chose Hapoel Jerusalem for two reasons. “It’s a place with a very big support system, a place that wants to get to every final and win titles. That’s something I’m aiming for. I want to be on a big team, to start to blossom and for people to know my name. The coach [Alexander Djikic] worked with Estudiantes in the past. I know about him, I’ve seen him. He and the new assistant coach [Sergeant Place] are known as coaches who have really nurtured players.”

Levy will be putting himself in the hands of his new coaches in the hope that they will help him develop and go as far, and as high, as possible.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I want to reach the NBA,” he says. “I have two more years to enroll in the draft. If not the NBA, then Europe, the EuroLeague, and of course the adult Israeli national team. I want to do big things like that.”

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