Former basketball star hopes to score with musical ode

Eliezar ‘Lay Z’ Gordon sings jazzy gospel song about the "Holy Land" to attract Christian visitors.

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March 11, 2012 01:22
Eliezar 'Lay Z' Grodon

Eliezar 'Lay Z' Grodon . (photo credit: Eliezar Gordon)

 
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If navigating the tricky world of Israeli public diplomacy was as easy as sinking a three-pointer, former Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball player Eliezar “Lay Z” Gordon would be our tourism minister.

The athlete-turned-musician thinks he’s in possession of a slam dunk to woo Christian tourists to Israel – a jazzy gospel song he wrote called “Oh My Holy Land.”

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But the transition from the parquet court to the public diplomacy (hasbara) arena is proving to be as complex as a zone defense for the 47-yearold Ra’anana resident.

However, the determination developed during a decade-long basketball career is coming in handy for the charismatic coach and motivational speaker as he tries to use his musical talents and his personal charisma to promote Christian tourism to the country.

There aren’t many Israelis like Gordon – he’s got a name like a rapper, stands out in a crowd because of his lanky 188-cm. frame, and speaks in a lilting dialect that hints at a combination of Texas roots, the many years he’s spent playing on teams with black upbringing. Precisely for those reasons, Gordon feels like he – and his song – are the perfect magnets to bring in tourists.

“I’m somewhat of a novelty because I have the English, the Hebrew, the basketball and the music, and I can talk to people,” the affable Gordon said recently on a visit to The Jerusalem Post office.



He had recently performed to a packed house at the Einav Center in Tel Aviv, where he played and recorded “Oh My Holy Land” with full band and female backup singers and expressed excitement about the prospects of seeing the song – and an accompanying YouTube clip – adopted by the Tourism Ministry for an ad campaign in the US.

Gordon explained that he wrote the song about the feeling visitors get when they fly over the Mediterranean and start to descend to Ben-Gurion Airport.

And as he boasts, the chorus’s soulful repetition of “Oh my Holy Land” sung in true gospel style indeed proves to be infectious and inspiring.

Late last year, he met with officials at the Tourism Ministry in Jerusalem and played them the song. According to Roee Weller, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov’s chief of staff, the ministry sees the song’s potential to tug at the hearts of Christian tourists.

“It really speaks to Christian lovers of Israel,” he said. “We really think it could be a great calling card and when we sit down and decide on our tourism campaigns for the rest of the year, we will certainly suggest it to the advertising team we take on.”

Gordon, though, is impatient to embark on his chosen path as a goodwill ambassador for Israel. He has also received endorsements of the song from dignitaries as diverse as Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

“I’ve found something bigger and meaningful in my life and it’s mind-boggling,” said Gordon, who has continued coaching young basketball players and is featured at company events as a motivational speaker and MC.

“I believe this song affords the country an enormous opportunity, and it shows that I might have a calling in hasbara and tourism.”

For a long time, though, his calling seemed to be basketball. Born in New York and spending his early childhood in Houston, Eliezer Gordon made aliya as a young boy to Herzliya with his family, where he grew up as an Israeli in an American household speaking English. He received his nickname reluctantly, and it wasn’t because of any personality trait.

“Eliezer was hard to pronounce for the kids I was growing up with, so they just started calling me Lazy,” he said. “It kind of stuck, and I changed the spelling, but I had problems with it, because I’m very ambitious, not lazy at all.”

That energy reflected on the basketball court and at the piano bench, both places Gordon excelled as a teen. Maccabi Tel Aviv heard about him and sent their former star Tal Brodie, also an American immigrant, to provide some “big brother” guidance.

“I had a lot of problems as a teen – I was an artist trying to be a sportsman, a showman trying to be a team player,” said Gordon.

Despite Maccabi’s attention, Gordon decided to return to Houston to complete high school, where his parents later joined him. He starred for Towson State University in Baltimore and Southwest Texas State University and was a Jewish All- American in 1987. He was invited to NBA training camps for both the Portland Trailblazers and the San Antonio Spurs, but a chance meeting led him back to Israel.

“Tal Brodie was in Houston giving a lecture, and I went to see him,” said Gordon. “He saw me and said, ‘What are you doing here? You should be playing in Israel.’”

That was all Gordon needed to hear, and in 1988 he followed Brodie’s advice and signed a threeyear contract with Israel’s premier basketball team. However, Gordon’s problems with teamwork landed him on the bench, where he created even more problems, and during the next season, Maccabi ended up buying out his contract and releasing him. After a year back in Houston, he was signed by Hapoel Eilat where he spent three successful seasons.

“I was a pretty good ball player, but if I had owned a different personality, I would have had a better career,” he said.

Gordon ended his career at age 32 playing with Hapoel Haifa, a period in which he met his future wife, Mirit, and settled down to raise their two children.

“That was early to end a career in basketball, but it was good for my soul,” said Gordon.

For a while, he worked as a TV sports analyst, and even hosted his own show on the Mideast Channel – Lazy Night. He also developed his musical side, writing and recording a song with Ahinoam Nini. The songs have kept flowing, and Gordon, a nimble pianist and melodic vocalist, moved into the hasbara field by chance in 2009, when he went to the US and performed at a game between Maccabi Tel Aviv and the San Diego Clippers. He then went to speak on behalf of the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles to high school students in downtown LA, where he discovered that he had a rapport with the inner city students.

“Here I am, a Jewish guy but my soul is black,” said Gordon. “I love gospel, I play a black game of basketball. I’m not trying to be a rapper, but I’ve been playing with blacks all my life; sometimes I was the only white guy on the team.”

He thinks that the result of his life experiences – manifesting itself in “Oh My Holy Land” and his foray into outreach for Israel – combine all of his musical and interpersonal talents into one irresistible package.

“I feel for the first time in my life – with this song and with this personality of mine that was so problematic on the basketball court – like I am able to do something really great for this country,” he said.

Gordon’s hoping that soon, Middle America will see “Oh My Holy Land” featured in an official Israel tourism ad campaign, but he knows it’s not him that’s going to be making that final shot at the buzzer.

“I’ve done my part; I’ve gotten an assist. Sometimes, that’s more important than a basket,” he said.

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