Michael Jordan, from an Israeli hoopster perspective

Rishon Lezion icon Gene Banks talks Holy Land career and being a teammate of a young MJ.

A young Gene Banks (left) poses with Michael Jordan (right) while both were in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1980s (photo credit: Courtesy)
A young Gene Banks (left) poses with Michael Jordan (right) while both were in the NBA with the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1980s
(photo credit: Courtesy)
There are very few players who have had the distinction of playing with Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls and starred in Israel hoops. One of those players happens to be Gene Banks, who starred for Maccabi Rishon Lezion between 1990-1992 after featuring with Jordan’s Bulls from 1985-1987.

The Jerusalem Post
caught up with the 60-year-old Banks this month to reminisce and look back on his noteworthy career that saw him make an impact on the hardwood in the Holy Land and beyond.
“Israel was amazing and it will always hold a special place in my heart,” began an excited Banks. “One of Rishon’s other American players at the time was Andre Spencer, who I played together with in France the year before. We didn’t speak at all over the summer and we didn’t know what each other’s plans were for the following season. I arrived in Israel and who walks in but none other than Andre Spencer and we were both shocked. Not only hadn’t we spoken but no one from the team had even told us that we were going to be playing with together once again.”
“We didn’t know what to expect from living in Israel, so to come into a situation with someone I was already familiar with while also having the opportunity to play with one of Israel’s legends Miki Berkovich, it was magnificent.”
Expectations weren’t high for Rishon that season, but it all came together for the club with Banks averaging over 20 points and 10 rebounds a game as he helped guide the team all the way to the league finals, where it fell to Maccabi Tel Aviv.
“We were expected to finish in eighth or ninth place, but we were able to put together a Cinderella season with the help of guard Roni Besani and a rejuvenated Miki Berkovich. He may have lost a step but his basketball IQ was through the roof and he could still put in his jump shot.
“I ended up playing a number of positions due to injuries but I brought my winning attitude and with the help of the fans, who were absolutely crazy, I was able to feed off of their energy and they were a huge part of my success.”
After two seasons at Rishon, Banks moved to Herzliya where he teamed up with coach Muli Katzurin.
“It was difficult for me to go a different way and leave Rishon and then to play against them. But Muli, who I consider one of the top coaches I have ever played for, just told me to go out and have fun. If we win, great and if we don’t that’s also OK, but I knew that I was going in to the game to win the game and we did it. When it was all over I ran over to Muli and we hugged and cried together.”
Interestingly enough, Banks wasn’t looking to become a basketball player when he was younger, but he credits his father for making the game fun and fueling his desire and passion for the sport as time went on.
“When I was young I didn’t like basketball, but my father was a player. I grew up in Philadelphia and there were many games and leagues going on in the city. I would go with my father to the games and I used to wait for him while I played with toy soldiers. Afterwards he would pull me over and we played together just for fun. As time went by he let me play with some of the older guys and I started liking basketball because of that. I began to understand the game and I only started to think about the NBA when I as nearing the end of my time at Duke University.”
Banks was a McDonald’s All-American in high school and earned the Most Valuable Player award in the first ever McDonald’s Classic, which led him to having a number of choices as to where to go for college.
“I visited a number of schools but I thought I could really make Duke a national power but I still wasn’t sure where to go, with UCLA and other schools as options. My mom said to me that she wanted me to pray about it and she locked me in my room. I dreamed of wearing a Duke uniform and helping lead the team and then I knew for sure where I wanted to go. Nowadays, I always tell young people, don’t forget about your dreams, it all happened for me in my freshman year.”
After starring for Duke for four years, Banks was slated to be one of the top picks in the 1981 NBA Draft, but ended up dropping into the second round.
“I was supposed to be picked third or fourth overall, but I broke my wrist and fell to the first pick in the second round. I got to play with the great “Iceman,” George Gervin, who was hard on me but that helped me earn his respect. I had to fight for my place against a few other power forwards and I beat them all out. Here I was now guarding the best scorer on the other team. One night it was “Dr. J” [Julius Erving], the day after that it was Larry Bird and on and on and on. I embraced that challenge was successful at it.”
Banks moved to the Bulls and reunited with coach Stan Albeck, who was his first coach at San Antonio. Albeck had brought in Banks to provide veteran leadership and the chance to help nurture along a young Michael Jordan, who was just beginning his second season in the league.
“Michael was starting to come into his own when I arrived, but then he broke his foot in the third game and it was like the world came down. But then Stan Albeck and General Manager Jerry Krause brought in George Gervin, who was in the twilight of career to help with the scoring, as well as John Paxson, both of whom were with me at San Antonio. We fought all season long and we didn’t have much of a bench. Michael came back near the end of the season and we got into the playoffs with a 30-52 record. The whole season was just crazy but we stuck it out and hung together just enough to get into the postseason which ended up leading to Jordan’s 63-point playoff game against the Boston Celtics.”
Watching Jordan up close and personal behind the scenes was truly fascinating for Banks.
“Practices were intense and they were brutal. Michael got beat up a lot and he loved it. That’s what made him a great player. His work ethic was second to none and the games themselves were easier for him because of the workouts that he had put in during practice. He was such a high competitor.
“I knew he was something special right away and he was the type of player that you never wanted to tick off. When Michael got ticked off he went right into you and I’ve never seen that tenacity in any other player. Michael didn’t like to lose and that what I loved about him. When he was out there he gave everything that he had. Just to see how it all evolved was amazing.”
A number of years ago, Banks was honored by Rishon Lezion and was named the club’s greatest foreigner of all time.
“I’ve had a lot of great honors bestowed on me, but to be called back to Israel and awarded the best foreign player in the franchise’s history was the top. I had the chance to see all of my old teammates and it was phenomenal.”
One thing is certain, Banks will not only remain in the hearts of Rishon fans but his love of Israel is second to none.
“To all the people of Israel, I miss you very much. Israel was my second home. I have a great love for Israel and I’ll always keep that.”

Joshua Halickman, the Sports Rabbi, covers Israeli sports and organizes Israel sports adventures for tourists and residents (www.sportsrabbi.com). Follow the Sports Rabbi on Twitter @thesportsrabbi or feel free to contact the Sports Rabbi at sportsrabbi9@gmail.com.