More than 1,000 teenagers, many sporting green T-Shirts with the slogan, "Despite everything, the ball is in our hands," roared their approval as former Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball star Tal Brody walked onto the court to introduce the special Championship Final of the annual Gush Katif Basketball Tournament.
Brody first came across the Gush Katif basketball players after watching their previous game on television last August 15, which was played in Neveh Dekalim less than two days before the players and their supporters were forcibly evicted from their homes.
Then, the opposing teams lived minutes away from one another, but needed a military permit to be allowed to hold the event after the army put a curfew on each settlement. The game did go on and Neveh Dekalim beat Netzer Hazani 50-45. Brody was so impressed by the players' spirit that he helped three of them win basketball scholarships at a yeshiva high school in New Jersey .
Sunday evening, the same two teams - each of whom has won the tournament six times in the past 14 years (Ganei Tal won the other two) - faced off again, but far from the seashore and whitewashed homes of their home communities.
Sponsored by the Minyan Hahadash Congregation of Ra'anana, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Committee of Gush Katif Communities-Lema'an Acheinu, close to 1,500 supporters and players were bused to Jerusalem's Malha Arena from temporary accommodations around the country - from the Golan Heights to Nitzanim in the South.
The players have been dispersed to a half-dozen communities and were only able to get together to hold two practice sessions. But this game, which Neveh Dekalim won, 54-46, was about much more than shooting a winning hoop - it was about keeping up the spirit of the Gush Katif communities and providing their youth with a healthy, positive outlet for their energy.
"This event is about helping the youth to close a circle, to show them that they can take everything they had and move on with their lives," said Stu Schapiro, one of the Ra'anana organizers, originally from the US. "This game is not about politics... We have a very diverse membership in our shul, but everyone understood the importance of raising the spirits of these youth, who have suffered so much, and showing them our support," he added.
Neveh Dekalim center Naveh Zoldan, 18, couldn't stop grinning. The exuberant teen, who currently lives in Ma'aleh Admumim, said, "It feels great to see the hall filling up, to see everyone here." Trying to make himself heard above the beat of darbukot (drums), whistles and cheers, he said, "It feels like the old Gush Katif... how it was."
Shlomo Yulis, a Neveh Dekalim evacuee for whose son the tournament is named, mingled with the young players who towered above him. Itai Yulis passed away in 1991 at the age of 14 and the tournament has been held in his memory every summer.
"This is not the end of the tournament, but a very special game between the two current champions - a point from which we can move forwards," Yulis told The Jerusalem Post.
In the audience was filmmaker Avi Abelow, who is producing a documentary about the basketball players of Gush Katif before and after disengagement.
He said the tournament was a "phenomenal way to raise the morale of the youth and families," adding that he was focusing on the sport in his film because "a lot of people don't understand why many of these families stayed in Gush Katif until the last day.
"Basketball, like any sport, helps to understand their message - the belief that things can change in a split second and everything can make a difference... They wanted to stay until the last day in the belief that something could change to allow them to stay in their homes.
"Also, people should see that these are real people... they play basketball, they look like us, they play like us... that doesn't always come across in the media," Abelow said.
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