The long, winding road between Ariel and the Tapuah junction is dark at night.Cars with their headlights on move quickly on the narrow, two-lane road. I turn into the gate of Kfar Tapuah and stop a woman in a kerchief and long skirt. “The basketball court? Just drive straight ahead it’s on the right.” She smiles. “You can’t miss it.”I pull into the parking area and look at the large building. The sign next to the entrance greets me: “Sports facility, erected by the Shomron Regional Council in conjunction with the Israel Ministry of Construction and Housing, the Israel Ministry of Culture and Sport, the Community Council, for the benefit of the inhabitants 2013.”
I step inside and take in a deep breath.To the right and to the left are staircases up to the bleachers. Behind the glass doors ahead are 20 to 30 junior-high boys playing on a beautiful, modern, brand-new court. Home court – Kfar Tapuah. I’m impressed.In the office I meet Revital, who drives in from Rosh Ha’ayin twice a week to coach the women’s team. “What’s special about this team?” I ask.Revital thinks for a moment. “Most of the women on the team never played basketball, but love the game. I had to start from the beginning with them; they didn’t know basics. Most teams spend a year learning and practicing before they join a league. These women were in a league before they knew the rules. We learn as we go.”“But you know something,” she leans forward, “I like their attitude. I coached a group of teens who just didn’t put their all into it. This team has the right mind-set, now they just need to learn how to play.”Meir Brachya, the coordinator of the sports program in Samaria, remembers how it all started. “Two years ago, two women from one of the communities in the area called and told me that they wanted to start a women’s basketball team. We’d already thought of the idea.It was clear to us that when we create competitive teams, we’ll include women’s teams as well, and here were women calling and asking to start a team.“So we started to get a team together; 30 women wanted to join. The court in Tapuah hadn’t been built yet. We had the option of renting a court in Ariel or in Karnei Shomron. Since Karnei Shomron was being used at the hours we needed, we founded the team in Ariel knowing that we’d move to Tapuah as soon as the court there was finished.”For Natalie Zacks, who made aliya from Detroit to Ariel with her husband and three young children, a team that played in Ariel was perfect. Since her days in Detroit, Zacks had been involved in organizing women’s basketball games. “I never played as a girl,” she confides. “But we were invited to someone’s birthday party and they played ‘bumper car basketball,’ and we had a blast! So I decided to continue the basketball experience.“I called some friends and we began to play weekly. This went on for several years until we made aliya. I only took a break when my son was born.When we made aliya I wanted to live somewhere mostly Israeli, with some English speakers, and where I could continue to play basketball. Ariel was a great choice.”Zacks organized a group of women who played one night a week, sometimes two. When her group heard about the women’s league, she and a few others from the group joined. “It’s a big commitment,” explains Zacks, “You have to come to the practices and the games and take it seriously.”For Efrat and her daughter Saraleh, 15, the team is a bonding experience. “I joined the team because of my daughter,” explains Efrat, who had never played basketball before in her life. Saraleh had been playing for years in extracurricular classes for girls, and when she told her mother that she was joining the team, Mom decided to go for it.There have been some unexpected payoffs for Efrat. To keep up her stamina on the court, she began to work out twice a week. “At first, I had to signal to Revital to switch me after five minutes on the court. At this point I can play more than half a game without getting tired. It’s a great feeling.”Efrat also noted that, psychologically, she has learned to deal with pressure.“Playing competitively created a lot of anxiety,” she explains. “I felt responsible to the team and I didn’t want to mess up the game. I learned how to deal with it.”But the ultimate reward is the special connection she’s made with her daughter and other members of the family.Her younger kids think it’s great that their mom plays. They come to cheer at the games and they’ve been practicing their dribbling and shooting at home.Even Efrat’s husband has become involved, by giving tips on how to make a sudden turns or guard other players.“My involvement in basketball has really changed our lives,” she confides.For Zacks, basketball turned out to be an unexpected resource. “I came home from a basketball practice a few months ago,” she recalls vividly, “and my brother called from the States to tell me that my Mom had been diagnosed with brain cancer. I hopped on a plane that night. My mom passed away three weeks later.”The whole episode was so traumatic that, once over, Zacks didn’t feel like doing anything, let alone play competitive basketball. “I went back to work, but I just kept thinking about it. The next week I went to a game – just to watch…” A week later, she was back on the court. “I call it my ‘basketball therapy,’” she explains, “the activity gets those good hormones flowing. I don’t think about what happened while I’m playing. It’s really helped me deal with the trauma.”I ask Brachya if he has stories from the team. “I don’t attend games,” he answers.Since all of the women but one are religious, they have requested that men not attend the games. “At home games there are no men,” says Brachya.“When it’s an outside game, it’s out of our hands. I totally accept and respect them for who they are.”Efrat and Shulamit (the only grandmother amongst the players) agree that playing in shorts, even long baggy shorts, had been an adjustment. “We had them put up curtains on the glass doors and windows for practice.” Revital divulges. “It took me a while to get them to practice without skirts and head coverings. At games, everyone plays the way they want. The married women cover their hair and some referees are OK with skirts over the shorts.”When I ask about recruiting, Revital explains that they have 17 players already.“But we need some tall players,” Efrat chimes in. “I noticed someone really tall – and pretty – in the supermarket so I went up to her to ask if she lives in the area. She told me that she’d love to but not at this point… ” “Get her phone number,” Revital advises.Revital mentions that the teams who come to play from Kfar Saba or Petah Tikva sometimes bring only five or six players. Officially they can register up to 12 at a game. “We don’t have girls,” they complain.Women there aren’t as motivated? Revital is tentative. “I don’t know. They have several teams in each city. Right now we’re the only women’s team in the area. This is the Center, and whoever wants to play comes here.” Next year, she’d like to start a high-school team for girls.Brachya and Doron Hallel, the manager of the sports department of the Samaria Regional Council, are excited about the response to the teams. “It’s a real revolution,” says Brachya, referring to the interest in competitive sports in Samaria. “Doron started here with one team, and now there are six basketball teams.”Doron expands on this: “If you include volleyball and the different age levels, we have 10 competitive sports teams in Samaria.”Everyone agrees that competitive sports in general and basketball in particular have made a great contribution to the communities of Samaria. “All the teams come,” says Revital, “Nobody’s canceled a game because they were afraid to come. The people here have spirit.”Brachya agrees. “The image of the people in Samaria is changing. It’s less one-dimensional. On the court, we’re able to bring people together in many different ways.”The men’s and boys’ teams compete against Arab teams. As of yet, the women’s team hasn’t, for the simple reason that there aren’t any Arab women’s teams in the league in their region.Nobody seemed to think that playing against an Arab team would be problematic or controversial. Basketball creates its own reality.As we end the interview, several women come into the office. “Here’s the player with the special privileges,” says Revital. “I let her leave her phone on during practice because she just had a baby.”When asked about their kids, the women smile. The older children come to watch the games, but the little ones are another story. As the husbands don’t come, there’s no one to keep an eye on the younger set. “Nobody’s going to be able to concentrate,” says Revital, “if they worry about their two year old in the bleachers. So the rule is that the little ones don’t come.”The older children spend a lot of time in the bleachers cheering for their moms. “At the last game,” says Zacks, “the kids came down after the game and played their own game.” Basketball seems to be contagious.The team goes out to the court and the boys reluctantly start to leave with their trainer. The women come in with their totes, team numbers printed on the side. Some are in pants, some leave their skirts on; Zacks is in a Superman T-shirt and a blue bandanna. As the boys leave, one player closes the curtains and the skirts start to come off.They do warm-up runs across the court. Revital’s whistle blows. The team lines up for layups. Efrat, smiling, guards Saraleh.The whistle blows. The women form a circle around Revital as she divides them into teams. The white team’s offense sinks a basket. Downcourt, the defense cheers.I walk towards the glass doors. A little boy is jumping up and down in the bleachers and his mother stands near him. I ask her if she came to cheer for the team. “No,” she says, “My son is a fan. He has Down syndrome, and he comes to watch all the time. He loves seeing them play.”As I walk towards the car, I think to myself that what is really impressive is the team.