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They aren’t soldiers or scientists. They aren’t part of the startup nation. They don’t win Eurovision song contests. In fact, they are quite an unlikely group to have become some of Israel’s best ambassadors.
The group David Goldstein writes about in “Alley-Oop to Aliyah” comprises the 800-plus black American basketball players who have gone to Israel — some reluctantly — over the past four decades and turned into international promoters for the Jewish state.
Some converted to Judaism, some married Israeli women, some became citizens, some served in the Israel Defense Forces. And most stayed to play in Israel’s basketball leagues far longer than they had anticipated.
“It’s important to note this is an Israeli phenomenon about which we can be unapologetically proud,” Goldstein said in a book talk at the Jewish Community Library in San Francisco on Feb. 7. “This is a book about race, religion, about identity, about politics, about a lot more than the 94-foot length of the court.”
Goldstein, who also spoke about his book Feb. 6 at a Jewish Sports Hall of Fame of Northern California dinner, is Canadian-Israeli. He took classes in African American studies while majoring in journalism at Northwestern University.
His book, a decade-long project done while he was practicing law in his hometown of Toronto, focuses on the surprise many of the players experienced at how comfortable and safe they felt in Israel — where they could speak English, eat American fast food and party at Tel Aviv hip-hop clubs.
For American basketball players who don’t make it or don’t last long in the NBA, international leagues offer a chance to keep playing, a comfortable salary and a way to see the world. The first black American player to have a significant impact in Israeli basketball was Aulcie Perry, who signed a two-month contract in 1976 and ended up converting and becoming an Israeli citizen.
Perry led the 1976-77 Maccabi Tel Aviv team to the EuroLeague championship, a first for an Israeli team, including a dramatic win over a Soviet Red Army team that boosted Israeli national confidence and is still considered by many Israelis to be their country’s greatest sports moment. He went on to date Israeli supermodel Tami Ben Ami and became a national hero.
“Other players there called him Moses, because he opened the doors for the whole thing,” Goldstein said. ‘The country needed some good news that didn’t relate to a battlefield.”
Among the hundreds of other black Americans, including some women, who have played in Israel are former Warriors players Gary Plummer and Purvis Short. Former Stanford point guard Arthur Lee played in Nahariya, in Israel’s north, in 2002-2004 during an international career that also included stops in Turkey, Croatia, Italy, France, Greece, the Czech Republic, Cyprus, Lebanon and Poland.
Former NBA All-Star Amar’e Stoudemire is the biggest name to play in Israel in recent years. He still plays for Hapoel Jerusalem, a team he co-owns, and is devoted to Torah study. Goldstein doesn’t mention him until late in the book.
“I had written the entire manuscript before he ever set foot in Israel,” Goldstein told J. “He’s the most famous example, but it is a phenomenon of 800 players.”
Goldstein spends considerable time in the book discussing whether the influx of American talent is good for Israeli basketball. Does it impair the development of Israeli-born players by reducing their opportunities for starring roles? Or does it raise the overall caliber of play while also improving Israel’s chances in international competition?
And why is there only one Israeli now in the NBA — T.J. Leaf of the Indiana Pacers (Omri Casspi was waived by the Memphis Grizzlies on Feb. 7) — while smaller nations like Croatia have many more on NBA rosters?
Goldstein gives supporting evidence for both arguments, and points out the debate might soon be moot. Some of Israel’s top up-and-coming players now are the sons of those black Americans who married Israelis — the kids are both Israeli and Jewish.