For Bay Area duo, March gladness trumps Mideast madness

Princeton University women’s basketball star Lauren Polansky is a Jewish 21-year-old from Mill Valley. Her teammate, Niveen Rasheed, the Tigers’ leading scorer and rebounder this season, grew up in Danville, the daughter of Palestinian parents from the West Bank; her sister is a diplomat for the Palestinians at the United Nations.

But as longtime friends and teammates — they began playing together on a high-level Bay Area club team in 2008 — Polansky and Rasheed find it easy to stay focused on what they have in common, rather than on the differences that reporters and fans occasionally want to discuss.

That’s especially true right now, as Princeton gears up for its third straight trip into the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament, otherwise known as March Madness. The Tigers, who are riding a 17-game win streak and finished the regular season with a 24-4 record, secured an automatic berth in the tournament by winning their third straight Ivy League title; they’ll play Kansas State in the first round on Saturday, March 17. The game, which starts at 8:20 a.m. (PST), will be broadcast on ESPN.

Niveen Rasheed (left) and Lauren Polansky, Princeton women’s basketball players photo/rj gleason photography

For Polansky and Rasheed, juniors who have been starters in all three of their seasons on the team, making a third straight postseason appearance is another exciting phase of a journey that they began together more than four years ago — when, during the summer before their senior year of high school, they played AAU basketball for the East Bay Xplosion.

Polansky played her high school ball for the Branson School, a small college prep school in Ross (Marin County), which won state titles in the small-school division during her sophomore and junior years. In 2009, she was enshrined in the Northern California Jewish Sports Hall of Fame’s second student class. Rasheed played for Monte Vista High in Danville.

They knew each other through the basketball grapevine, but it was their time as teammates on the Xplosion that cemented their friendship.

Rasheed, who had originally not even considered applying to an Ivy League school, ended up following her friend to Princeton.

“Princeton is very far from California, and I am very tight with my family,” Rasheed, 21, said in a recent phone interview from the New Jersey campus. “But L.P. [Rasheed’s nickname for Lauren] convinced me to come along to visit Princeton with her, and we both fell in love with the school. We felt very comfortable and really liked the team and the coaches.”

Rasheed, who stands 6-foot, plays forward for the Tigers, and averaged 16.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game this season. Polansky, a 5-foot-8 point guard, averaged only 2.7 points per game, but she is a defensive whiz, having been named the Ivy League’s defensive player of the year for 2010-11.

Rasheed said that despite her parents having come from a traditional background in Deir Dibwan, near Ramallah, they were supportive of all five of their children’s — including four daughters’ — serious interest in sports, mainly soccer and basketball.

“We are a very supportive and competitive family,” Rasheed explained. “I really looked up to my siblings.”

Polansky, on the other hand, is an only child in a family with a strong basketball legacy. In the 1960s, her grandfather, Dave Polansky, coached at City College in New York, a nationally prominent program before being rocked by a points-shaving scandal in 1951. Her mother, Cynthia, played on the South African national team. And Polansky’s late father Jon, who did genetic research in ophthalmology at UCSF, played on a semi-pro team while at Harvard Medical School.

“I had a little basketball hoop in my crib,” Polansky said in a phone interview. “I guess you could say I have basketball in my blood.”

When Polansky thinks about how her dad, who died in 2005, influenced her as a player, she doesn’t think in terms of technique. “He really impacted my game mentally,” she explained. “My competitive nature, my focus on the game, comes from his pushing me.”

As for not scoring a lot of points, she said, “I make my statement through the defensive end. I love the leadership aspect of playing point guard. I get to be the playmaker, the on-floor leader and coach, so to speak. I get to set the pace.”

“L.P.” and “Vee,” as Polansky sometimes calls Rasheed, may end up spending some time together in Israel and the Palestinian territories this summer. Polansky, who considers herself a cultural Jew and who did not grow up as a member of a synagogue, hopes to do research there for her thesis for her political economics major. It would be her first trip to Israel.

Rasheed, on the other hand, has been to the Palestinian territories to visit her extended family many times. She volunteered a couple of years ago in Beit Safafa at the Peace Players Camp for Palestinian and Israeli children, and she would like to return to it again this summer.

Both women insist that the Jewish-Palestinian thing does not factor into their relationship.

“I have never had differences with L.P. because of it,” said Rasheed, who grew up with “lots of Jewish friends” in the Danville–San Ramon area.

Polansky said that because her friend comes “from a different background, [it] has made our relationship better, more stimulating and broadening.” She added that their families are very friendly with one another, and that “people jokingly refer to us as the Polansky-Rasheeds.”

Lauren and Niveen got to play in front of the Polansky-Rasheeds (and many of their friends) this season, as Princeton traveled west for games at Stanford and Santa Clara in December. The Tigers lost 85-66 to powerhouse Stanford, but then, behind a team-high 20 points from Niveen and a team-high seven rebounds by Polansky, beat Santa Clara 77-61 — and haven’t lost since.

Now, with memories of great performances and an undefeated 14-0 Ivy League season behind them, Polansky and Rasheed are focusing on what lies ahead.

“The first couple of years, we were shocked about the big stage of the NCAA tournament,” Polansky said, alluding to a 65-47 loss to St. John’s in the first round in 2010, and a 65-49 loss to Georgetown in the first round last year.

“But now we are more mature, more experienced,” she added, “and that will help going forward.”

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.