The Human Spirit: Hoop Dreams

"After the first moment it didn't matter that they were Arabs and we were Jews."

November 26, 2010 15:16
Basketball hoop [illustrative]

Basketball hoop 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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Warm up. On the both sides of the community basketball court, players are dribbling, passing and shooting. No. 32 on the visiting team swishes a series of three-point shots through the hoop. She tugs at the black hijab at her neck, loosening it. Across the court, No. 31 on the home team is practicing scoop shots. Holding the ball between her knees, she tightens the bow on her bandanna. In the last moments before the game they stretch.

In the bleachers, I’m stretching, too, neck and back. I’ve come to Karnei Shomron, a town of 6,500 Jews, from Jerusalem after receiving an irresistible letter from a reader. For safety, I’ve driven the long way round on Route 6 instead of the direct route through the verdant rolling hills of Samaria. Near Kfar Saba, a checkpoint at the entry to the West Bank looks more like a large, lit-up gas station than a military installation. Everyone is waved through. Nonetheless, there are still 16 kilometers of unlit road. I roll up my window, as if the glass would stop a bullet. I live in Jerusalem and work downtown, the ground zero of terror attacks. Still, here I’m on unfamiliar turf.

“We’ve started a women’s basketball team for the regional league,” wrote Carol Wilbur, 44, a mother of five who lives here. “Moms and high school girls. And guess who we drew for the first game? Taiba!” Taiba, named for the ancient Jewish town Tibta, is an all-Arab town of 29,000. I’ve taken part in many Jewish-Arab dialogues, but they’re usually Jews like me from Israel’s cities talking with Palestinians from the territories. Today’s game pits Jews from Samaria against Israeli Arabs.

“Several of the girls said we shouldn’t go, that it’s too dangerous,” Taiba coach Morad Azim tells me as he fills out forms near the court. “But if you opt out it’s an automatic loss and hurts your season.”

He says the teammates were uneasy on the bus on the way here. “The girls didn’t know how they would be received. We know what’s thought here, Arabs equal intifada.”

In 2002, a terrorist from Kalkilya blew up the pizza parlor in Karnei Shomron, murdering two teens and wounding 30. There have been numerous shootings on the Samaria roads. Israeli actors have boycotted performances in Samaria towns. This team is coming.

Carol Wilbur says the Jewish team is nervous. “It’s our first game ever and it’s against an Arab team.” She has resurrected 31, her basketball number from her high school team in Maryland. For the last 10 years she’s lived in Karnei Shomron, teaching aerobics to local girls and women. “We’ve heard the Taiba players are very good and our coach told us that we’re going to lose big time.”

Her coach, Amir Menahem, has also warned his players never to fraternize with an opposing team before a game. “Hang tough,” he reminds them. “This is basketball, not a friendship circle.”

For me, as the bleachers fill with fans, looming large is the potential for insults or even violence in a town that has never hosted an Arab team and Arab girls who have never set foot in a settlement. Israeli sports fans are vociferous. When the Jerusalem basketball team plays arch-rival Tel Aviv, it’s not uncommon to hear from the Jerusalemites, “Tel Aviv go up in flames.” What would those words mean here?

AT 8 P.M. each team forms a circle, hands in the center, shouting out their team name. They shake hands.

Before coming, I wondered how the players would dress. In Karnei Shomron at least half the village is religious, which means the married women tend to wear skirts and cover their hair. The league has rejected their request to play in skirts. In Taiba there is a similar mix of religious and secular, with religious women wearing the hijab.

Running and dribbling, the players look remarkably alike. Nearly all are wearing baggy shorts. On both teams, teenaged dark hair is pulled into pony tails. Taiba’s No. 32 is the only one wearing a hijab. She’s the team captain, and calls the shots. I find out later that she’s 19, and that she trained last year with Israel’s top women’s basketball team, Electra Ramat Hasharon. No wonder she’s in a class of her own on this court.

In the first minutes, Karnei Shomron scores two baskets, drawing a roar of approval from the crowd. Then the Taiba players surge ahead. They pull off fast breaks, drive the lane, capture rebounds. A group of girls begins to boo when each basket drops in. I shush them. “Not nice.” The first quarter ends Karnei Shomron 4, Taiba 15.

The bleachers continue to fill. High school girls, many wearing the blue shirts of the Bnei Akiva religious youth movement, are the majority. They shout “Yalla, Dikla” (No. 7, a petite 16-year old with curly black hair and the home team’s star player. Her name means “little date tree.”), “fight like beasts.” I’m listening to every word, alert to possible insults, as if I’m the arbiter of political correctness. The rhythmic three-syllable “Mil-ha-ma” actually means “war.” These girls are inexperienced sports fans, and quickly run out of basketball chants. They revert to familiar camp songs. When the fans soulfully sing Psalm 121, “I lift my eyes to the hills... from where will come my salvation,” that too sounds political. Those hills are what the current conflict is all about.

Not a single fan has come from Taiba. I feel bad for the visitors, but then again, they are winning. Half-time: Karnei Shomron 9, Taiba 29.

The referee is Jewish, wearing a black kippa. Players and coaches on both sides protest when he calls fouls of blocking, holding, charging, violations of double dribbles. He rolls his arms: traveling. That’s called “steps” in Hebrew.

The Taiba team uses a relentless fullcourt press. Karnei Shomron goes a quarter without scoring from the floor. In the tug over the ball, Wilbur’s bandanna flies off. “Sliha,” Hebrew for sorry, whispers the Taiba player guarding her. The referee calls a time-out so she can retie it.

Boys from the local religious high school have finished their evening classes and joined the fans. “Hey, they’re really good,” says one to his friend, watching the Taiba team. The crowd tries to rattle the Taiba players at the free throw line. That, too, feels belligerent. A girl in the front row takes off her shoe and pretends she’s going to throw it. The fourth quarter buzzer sounds. I let out my breath in relief. Nothing terrible has happened.

Final score Karnei Shomron 15, Taiba 54. The players shake hands.

THE TAIBA players walk off the court. One of their young players complains that she’s never been in such an “uncultured” place. She’s heard the crowd calling “beasts” of the “fight like beasts” and thought it was directed at her. “On my class trip to Auschwitz and Majdanek I felt better,” she says. But a fellow player who looks older waves away her criticism as normal fan exuberance. “I feel triumphant,” she says. “I was scared to come here, but I did it and played anyway. Besides, we won.”

Debriefing with fellow players in the gym, Wilbur is tired but grinning. “They played hard and clean. It was great. After the first moment it didn’t matter that they were Arabs and we were Jews. And I was proud to see a religious woman, their No. 32, who was such a good player.”

A teen player from Karnei Shomron admits she was worried about friends in the bleachers being angry about them losing to an Arab team. “They seemed okay that we lost.”

On the way home it occurs to me that they really haven’t lost. Against all odds, it’s been win-win for two teams who have rubbed shoulders and shared sweat on a basketball court.

It’s a win for the fans, too, ignitable teens who have spent an evening watching their sisters, mothers and friends playing basketball, being shellacked by an Arab team and taking it, on the whole, as good sports. When I asked the Karnei Shomron team’s much-lauded Dikla if she thought the game was significant she was puzzled. “Sorry, I don’t understand the question,” she said. “It’s only basketball.”

In the dark, the hills are colorless, sparsely populated. There’s room for everyone, if only we can figure out the rules of the game. I cross through the checkpoint. I think of the referee rolling his arms.

Joy rushes over me. Steps. I’m a mother and grandmother. Baby steps make me unreasonably happy.

Barbara Sofer is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel.

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