When you are 2.17-meters tall it is hard to fly under the radar.
However, Robert Rothbart has done exactly that for much of his basketball career.
The 28-year-old center with four different nationalities (Bosnian, Serbian, Israeli and American) has been playing professionally since 2004, but has failed to fulfill his almost limitless potential.
Height is something Israeli basketball has always desperately lacked and Rothbart seemed like manna from heaven when he first arrived on the scene in the summer of 2006.
However, after just a few weeks with the under-20 national team, his knee snapped in horrendous fashion during a warm-up game against Greece in Italy and nothing has seemed to have gone according to plan since.
That may now be finally changing.
After spending the previous three seasons abroad, Rothbart returned to Israel last summer and is finally showing local fans what they have been missing out on due to the lack of faith shown in him down the years.
Rothbart registered his eighth straight double-double for Ironi Nahariya in Monday’s 86-81 loss to Ironi Ness Ziona and is averaging BSL career-highs across the board.
The center, who has a league-high 12 double-doubles so far this season, is registering 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game through 22 league contests, including 16.4 points, 11.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocks over his team’s past 15 games.
Nahariya won just two of its first 11 games of the season and coach Roei Hagay was on the verge of being sacked. Rothbart also came close to being released early in the campaign, but Nahariya won eight of 12 games starting with an upset win in Jerusalem, led by the tallest player in the league.
“I don’t remember ever having such a streak in my career,” Rothbart told The Jerusalem Post. “I guess it is kind of unique in my career but personally I don’t like the attention I get from double-doubles when my team loses.
I guess it is nice but I would much rather win the game than to have another double-double.”
Rothbart, who was named as the BSL’s player of the month in March, admitted he wasn’t sure in which direction his season was heading after such a frustrating start to the campaign, but insisted he never lost faith in his ability.
“I didn’t know whether it would work out in Nahariya or not, but in the last 3-4 years I’ve been really working on myself and my basketball and accomplished a couple of good seasons in a row to a point where I had confidence in my ability as a basketball player,” he explained. “So I believed it would work out wherever I go. As soon as I was given time on the court that showed.”
After averaging 21 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks in his final season in High School in California, Rothbart signed a letter of intent to join Indiana University. However, he ultimately elected to go and play professional basketball in France at Paris Basket Racing.
He missed his entire first season at the club with a shoulder injury and after his second year in Paris he returned to Israel.
Rothbart had first arrived in Israel as a six-year-old in 1992 when his family escaped his birthplace Sarajevo in then Yugoslavia, and now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, due to the raging war.
After a little over two years in Israel during which his mother played professional basketball, the Rothbarts left for the US where Robert remained until the start of his professional career.
After his Parisian stint, Rothbart signed a long-term contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv but he never actually played for the club. He joined Hapoel Galil Elyon on loan in 2006 after which he played a season in Bosnia before moving back to Israel and playing for Nahariya, Netanya and Maccabi Haifa.
In his best season in Israel until that stage, Rothbart averaged just 5.8 points and 4.0 rebounds over 13.3 minutes for Haifa in BSL action.
He was never able to carve out a major role for himself in any of his Israeli stops, but he showed he has what it takes to play at the highest European level when he was given a surprise opportunity by Olimpija Ljubljana of Slovenia. He averaged 8.1 points and 5.3 rebounds for the team in the Euroleague in 2011/12 before playing for sides in Poland, Turkey and Bosnia.
“When I left Israel I left with a goal to build myself,” he said. “I left to play for a Euroleague team which was an opportunity which might come once in a career. And after that I saw I had learned so much that I wanted to try myself as a leader in a team and that is why I decided to go to Poland. When I left, I left with the thought that one day I would like to come back to Israel and show what I have learned. So when the offer came this summer from Nahariya, which wanted me as a starting center, I went for it.”
Nahariya’s playoff hopes have suffered a significant blow after it lost its past three games, but the team is still three games clear of last place in the battle against relegation and is just one game out of eighth place and a playoff berth.
Despite his unquestioned upside, Rothbart has yet to make his mark with the Israel national team, something he is hoping to change at this summer’s European Championships.
“Coach Erez [Edelstein] will make his decision according to what is best for the team,” he said diplomatically. “I do feel like I have something to offer to the national team and definitely want to be a part of that experience. It is a great honor.”
Rothbart’s contract at Nahariya runs out at the end of the season and he has already been mentioned in connection with a move to Hapoel Jerusalem.
“I felt that every year has been my best year and hopefully next year I’ll feel even better about my game,” he noted.
Rothbart would of course be happy to remain in Israel where he met his wife with whom he is raising their two children.
“Israel is not just another country. It is home to a certain extent,” he explained.
“Especially because I’m Jewish I feel very free here, but my life experiences have led me to feel like a world citizen more than anything else. But I do feel great here, my wife is Israeli and my kids speak Hebrew. I’m happy to be here.”
Time will tell where Rothbart will end up next season. Considering his track record nothing would be a surprise.
But after what he has shown over the past couple of months it will be difficult to continue and ignore him. Rothbart has gone overlooked for too long, but that is about to change.