Connecting people to Israel through the power of sports

There isn’t a sports event that you can watch on television that isn’t enhanced by a few different Israeli technologies at play.

Connecting people to Israel through the power of sports

One of the more entertaining discussions - for a sports fan - at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference in New York on Monday was the panel featuring former NBA player Mike Sweetney, “Jewish Jordan” Tamir Goodman and Liron Fanan, the Cleveland Charge Assistant GM and a scout for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

In a question-and-answer session moderated by Lee Igel, a Clinical Professor at the NYU Tisch Institute for Global Sport, the conversation revolved around the different features and innovations across the Israeli sports landscape.

While sports may not be the first things that comes to one’s mind when they think of Israel, the fact is that Israel has an extremely vibrant and passionate sporting culture, and there isn’t a sports event that you can watch anywhere around the world on television that isn’t enhanced by a few different Israeli technologies at play.

Describing his own love of sport, Goodman explained a little bit about his background.

[From left to right] Mike Sweetney, Liron Fanan and Tamir Goodman take part in a panel at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
[From left to right] Mike Sweetney, Liron Fanan and Tamir Goodman take part in a panel at The Jerusalem Post Annual Conference. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. And when I was eight years old, I was shooting around in the backyard and I decided that I wanted to show the world that you could play NCAA Division I basketball on a full scholarship, and ultimately professional basketball without playing on Shabbat. That was a goal that I set for myself at a very young age.

“By the time I was 17, I was ranked the 25th-best high school player in America. And I got a full scholarship to play at the University of Maryland. Originally, I told them that I could not play on Shabbat and they said that they would try to accommodate me. My life changed overnight - 700 media requests, Jerry Seinfeld did a full skit about me on Saturday Night Live, Sports Illustrated cover and things kind of blew up (the whole “Jewish Jordan” thing). But towards the end of my senior year of high school, Maryland made it clear that for me to get playing time and really progress with the team, I would have to play Shabbat. So I gave them back the scholarship because I chose Judaism over basketball. Then, the Jewish school that I went to for high school asked me to transfer because the media was so relentless, and I ended up transferring to a predominantly African-American Christian school, where they were Seventh Day Adventists and didn't play basketball on Shabbat either.

At the end of my senior year, I got invited to play in a very prestigious All-Star Game called the Capital Classic. And after our first day of practice, because of everything that happened at Maryland, I guess, the coach asked us to find a partner and shoot and no one kind of really wanted to jump at being my partner because I was so different from everyone. There was only one person who was willing to be my shooting partner and that was my friend over here, Michael Sweetney. Because of that one gesture of kindness, Mike and I have been dear friends ever since.

“After that,” continued Goodman, “I played at Towson University, where they changed the entire schedule for me so I did not have to play on Shabbat. And then I went over to Israel to play professionally and the first person to meet me at the airport when I signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv was Moni Fanan, Liron’s father of blessed memory.. So I'm here today because of Judaism and Israel and basketball. These three things have always been and will always be the essence of my life.

Fanan, whose father was a longtime and beloved Maccabi Tel Aviv executive, spoke about the source of her love of sports.

“It's crazy how all the dots are connected,” she began. “My love for basketball came from my dad and growing up in a basketball family. When I was 16, I think it was my first time at Madison Square Garden. And I looked at my parents and I said, I'm going to work in the NBA one day. Through my journey, I had a lot of steps and things to do to get from Israel, from being Israeli and being on an NBA team and being in the position I am today. But my main goal was to connect all these dots and bring an Israeli presence into the NBA, and being able to represent my country and being able to bring some of the NBA basketball to Israel.

“I think that being an Israeli in the NBA is a huge honor. You mentioned technology - we have a lot of tech companies that are involved in every aspect of the game, whether it's data or fan engagement.. A lot of companies from Israel reach out to me and we connect them to teams or to the league. I'm very honored to be a part of it.”

'Jerusalem is probably one of the most peaceful places I've ever been to'

Sweetney, the non-Israeli on the panel, spoke about his connection to the Holy Land and sports.

“First off,” said Sweetney, “I'm here, because without trying to be sentimental, this guy here [Tamir Goodman] saved my life and changed my life in so many ways. Obviously, you know I’m an ex-NBA player for the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls. But, during my career, I went through a lot and ended up quitting basketball. And it was a low point in my life. For 23 years now, since we started shooting free-throws together, Tamir and I have always been in contact. And so a few years ago, Tamir invited me to Jerusalem, to his basketball camp. And that camp changed my life.

“It was a good spiritual event and it being in Jerusalem changed my mindset because listening to news here in the US brainwashed me, I thought I was about to go into something dangerous. And it's probably one of the most peaceful places I've ever been to in my life. So I was grateful for the opportunity, but also ended up being connected by Tamir to my current coaching job. So, it is fair to say that Jerusalem has changed my life and my mindset, my entire outlook on life.”

Israeli tech enhancing the game

Elaborating on some of the Israeli technologies utilized across the sports world, Goodman pointed to an antimicrobial basketball net that was invented to combat fears of bacteria on the basketballs during the coronavirus pandemic, as well as an Israeli fan engagement company that uses technology to bring people together.

“This summer, I'm happy to announce that at my basketball camp, we'll be using the net and the engagement technology to bring kids from all different backgrounds together. Jewish kids, Arabic kids, all kids from all backgrounds using this technology and basketball to bring people together. And Judaism teaches us that to every single thing in the world, there's a holiness. The holiness of basketball is bringing people together. And I think Israeli technology is doing an amazing job of that.”

Addressing the power of sports to unify, Sweetney commented on his experiences.

“It's one of those things, you go into a stadium and there's 20,000 people all rooting for a team to win. And  most of those people - players and fans - probably have very different political and religious beliefs. But none of those differences come up at at all. I always ask why can’t we do this in everyday life? And I think that’s the power of sports, to bring people together.

Fanan also recalled many instances of basketball being a unifier and a unique marketing and diplomacy tool for Israel.

“One of the projects I was involved with was Basketball without Borders, through the NBA. And they bring kids from all over the world to play basketball for one week in Israel. And they bring NBA stars and coaches to Israel. And in my experience with them, they asked me a lot of questions. And they were very surprised to see Israel and to see how life is very modern. And it's not war everywhere like they think. To bring them all to Israel and to see clinics with Israeli and Arab kids and African-American kids and everyone together. It had a huge impact on these people. They came back to the States after that and they became our ambassadors. They speak about Israel even more highly than I do. And this is what we try to do all the time. And this is what Tamir does a lot. He brings a lot of American former players to Israel, to experience the country through sports, but it gets them to see a lot of other things that they didn't realize as well.”

Asked to pick the number one place they would send someone looking for a great sports experience in Israel, the panelists’ loyalties rose to the forefront.

“A Maccabi Tel Aviv Euroleague game on a Thursday night at Yad Eliyahu,” exclaimed Fanan. “You have to go!”

“The Sylvan Adams YMCA in  Jerusalem,” countered Goodman. “I’ll see you there, that’s where I hang out.”Sweetney broke the tie.

“I'm piggybacking off Tamir with the YMCA Jerusalem. It was truly an awesome experience there.”