Israel Becomes Hotspot for NBA Stars, and Some Are Catching the Heat

With three NBA All-Stars visiting in under a month, Israel's become a hot destination for the best basketball players in the world. But the price is usually high – and viral, especially when a photo-op includes an assault rifle

Draymond Green visits the police’s special counter-terrorism unit.
@Orshkedy / Twitter

“What are you all doing this morning?” Victor Oladipo shouted at his cellphone camera, surrounded by Israelis on their way to work. Over the past week, the American basketball star has been under less pressure than they have, but he’s certainly been busy.

Oladipo was rebaptized in the Jordan River; visited churches; drew a little closer to Jesus; donned a mud mask at the Dead Sea; flew in a helicopter for the first time, together with his mother, over the coast of Herzliya (with a pilot who used to be in the air force); ran along the beach in Tel Aviv; and even put together a scratch Slam Dunk Contest at an arena in Holon. After all, everyone knows that an NBA All-Star’s career isn’t really a career until he’s checked out the slam dunks in Holon.

Victor Oladipo shoots hoops in Holon.

A few days before Oladipo’s luxury tour of the Holy Land, an aerial photo of Tel Aviv through the window of a plane appeared on LaMarcus Aldridge’s Instagram account. Between Paris and London, the San Antonio star managed to squeeze in a Dead Sea hashtag at the end of a flattering description of his trip to Jerusalem.

The Western Wall, which has pretty much seen it all, can now check the 2.10-meter (6’11”) all-star from San Antonio off its list. But that’s no reason for great excitement; just last month, it checked off a 2-meter (6’7”) all-star from Golden State, when Draymond Green slipped a note between the stones.

LaMarcus Aldridge visits the Western Wall.

With three such visits in the space of a month, Israel can already be dubbed a tourism trend among NBA players. But that trend didn’t begin this year.

In 2017, NBA visitors included David Robinson and Adam Silver, who came through a project called “Basketball Without Borders.” In 2015, having been invited by NBA colleague Omri Casspi, DeMarcus Cousins, Caron Butler, Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons all came. And in 2016, Casspi brought over Rudy Gay, Chris Copeland, Donald Sloan, Shawn Marion and Amar’e Stoudemire, shortly before the latter became the Holy Spirit’s stepson in Jerusalem.

Granted, the NBA stars at times began the evening making angry faces at the paparazzi at the Tel Aviv port. But somehow, they always end with a smiling picture with “Liran gray-shirt,” a person known for appearing in the back drop of news reports.

The news about Israel, it seems, has circulated among the league’s players. Green told Israel’s Sports Channel that visiting the Western Wall was wonderful and Masada was amazing. But the most special experience was floating in the Dead Sea, he said, because you think floating in those waters is impossible, and then you simply lean back and float. This, he added, was one of the most amazing things he has ever done.

Draymond Green at the shooting range.

Green also did other things during his trip that some would describe as amazing, but in the less positive sense of the word. His visit with President Reuven Rivlin, and especially his photographed experience with the police’s special counter-terrorism unit, which included practical experience at a shooting range and posing as a sniper for the camera, turned Green into a sitting duck for every person with a keyboard and a chilly attitude toward Israel.

The responses to his picture with Rivlin – which included one saying Green should be ashamed of showing respect for the illegitimate Zionist entity, and another saying Green is “dead to me” – were mild compared to the responses to his time at the police facility. Sean King, a human rights activist, wrote Green a letter on Instagram in which he said, inter alia, “You got played. And you played yourself ... Flashing a toothy grin w/ a sniper rifle in Israel on a trip sponsored by Friends of the IDF is so horribly offensive ... man ... what are you doing? They are an Apartheid regime ... They've recently slaughtered 100s of unarmed Palestinians w/ those rifles.”

Dave Zirin of The Nation continued in this vein, recalling what Green said when asked about Golden State’s refusal to make the NBA champions’ traditional visit to the White House – that to effect change, you have to take a stand.

“This, just like a White House visit would have been, was a propaganda visit, immediately tweeted out by Micky Rosenfeld, the Israeli Police Foreign Press Spokesman,” Zirin wrote. “It is, frankly, shocking to see Draymond Green smiling and shooting guns in their company ... Imagine Green visiting the Ferguson police department while fires were still smoldering in 2014. He never would have done it, yet this visit was somehow fine: legitimizing a regime that just engaged in a massacre.”

What to one person is a villa in the jungle is sometimes just a jungle to another person. So it’s no surprise that some people don’t want to enter it at all.

Michael Bennett, who once played in the NFL for the Seattle Seahawks, was part of a delegation of NFL players slated to come to Israel last year, but in February 2017, he announced that he was backing out of the trip. The reason was that Israel’s tourism and interior ministries were funding the delegation to the tune of hundreds of thousands of shekels, and Interior Minister Gilad Erdan publicly proclaimed that the goal of the visit was for the players “to show their tens of millions of fans Israel’s true face.”

In a letter on Twitter addressed “Dear World,” Bennett said he refused to let himself be used in that fashion. “When I do go to Israel – and I do plan to go – it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives,” he wrote.

Victor Oladipo plays basketball in Tel Aviv.

Bennett’s withdrawal from the delegation led other players to follow suit. Thus, in the end, a much smaller group than originally planned arrived in Israel.  

Sometimes, the strings are pulled by people less prominent than a minister boasting of ambassadors who didn’t know they were any such thing. Some of the NBA players who boarded the private plane that flew them directly from Los Angeles to Israel in the summer of 2015 weren’t really aware of the political background of its owner, American-Jewish casino mogul and Republican Party mega-donor, Sheldon Adelson.

“There is something about this trip that I have to assume you were not made aware,” wrote Zirin, who more or less makes a living from such stories. “Adelson is best known for financially propping up the hard right wing of the Israeli government, and calling for the dropping of an atomic bomb on Iran.”

Three years later, Green found himself under similar assault. Presumably, he just thought shooting at a firing range was fun, like groin shots in the NBA, but that doesn’t matter. Even if he knew exactly who brought him to Israel, he almost certainly didn’t understand what a political witch’s brew he was wading into just by virtue of being here, smiling his famous smile alongside symbols of the government and Israeli security agencies. Welcome to the hottest place in the Middle East, in several senses of the word.

Granted, “my brother Omri” warmly recommended the place, and Israel may have positioned itself as a tourist gem by word of mouth throughout the league. But visiting it is likely to carry a price in terms of image – especially in the online world.

Aldridge, who, like Oladipo, came here on a private visit, merely posted a picture from the plane with the caption “Tel Aviv,” but immediately got a dose of Levantine reality. One commenter said he came at an excellent time, since the Palestinians were currently bombarding Israel. That prompted a discussion which diverged into questions like “who is a Jew,” “who is a Palestinian” and “what’s the story with Hamas.” A panoramic view of the Western Wall caused commenters to refer each other to the monkey farm.

At least Oladipo continued enjoying himself. He skipped from the arena in Holon to St. Peter’s Church to the Caesarea amphitheater. His last video showed that he was apparently keeping fit in the streets; it included the caption “running with God.” Just to be on the safe side, perhaps he should say he’s also running with Allah.