Israeli basketball players point YU teams in the right direction

 CAPTAIN YUVAL NITZAN broke the school record with 41 points in a recent game. (photo credit: YU ATHLETICS)
CAPTAIN YUVAL NITZAN broke the school record with 41 points in a recent game.
(photo credit: YU ATHLETICS)

 SHOOTING GUARD Shai Rahamim learned the ropes from Nitzan. (credit: YU ATHLETICS)
SHOOTING GUARD Shai Rahamim learned the ropes from Nitzan. (credit: YU ATHLETICS)
When Ofek Reef puts his head down, drives to the basket and elevates, he looks like he’s jumped off a trampoline. Born in Tel Aviv, the 6’1 Yeshiva University point guard said he gets an adrenaline rush when a defender tries to stop his path.

“When I take the ball to the hole, I don’t care if a guy is 6’10 or 5’1,” Reef told the Magazine by phone. “I am going up and he’s going up. One of us is gonna win. One of us is gonna lose. I’m not looking to be ‘posterized’ but I don’t have an ounce of fear.”

Reef had a sensational slam in the team’s win on December 11, a 104-59 win over Medgar Evers, in which he scored 16 points. The junior is averaging 16.6 per game, second best on the team, and he puts pressure on opposing guards, getting six steals in a game earlier this month. He is 29-32 from the free-throw line for a team-best 90.6%.

Entering December 12, the Maccabees (13-0) are ranked No.1 for the first time in school history and have won 49 games in a row. That’s the second-best win streak in Division III history and the best current streak in all of men’s basketball. The team can break the record on the last game of the season, should they win out.

Reef, who moved from Israel to America when he was a small child, said he knows what his team needs from him.

 TEL AVIV-BORN point guard Ofek Reef is YU’s second leading scorer with 16.6 points per game (credit: YU ATHLETICS)
TEL AVIV-BORN point guard Ofek Reef is YU’s second leading scorer with 16.6 points per game (credit: YU ATHLETICS)

“My role on the team is to be the energizer,” he said.

Reef stands out from other YU players because he is the speediest and has the most swag. He wears earrings (he recently forgot to take them out and the game had to hilariously be stopped so he could remove them), has a headband and he has four tattoos. On his chest, he said, Hebrew letters say “Yesh bi ahava vehi tenatseach” or “There’s love in me and it will win.” He has a Magen David tattoo on his ribs, a half-moon wave on his forearm and a tattoo of the names of his sisters Gal, 22, and Sahar, 18.

Family, he said, is crucial to him. He visits his relatives in Israel nearly every year. He also longs for something else.

“I can’t lie,” he said. “I miss the beaches of Tel Aviv. There’s nothing like it.”

While he misses the sand, on the court he leaves defenders in the dust.

As for those who say someone can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery if one has tattoos, he said it’s not his chief concern at the moment, but he will look into it.

“I’ve for sure heard about that and I think I’ll ask a rabbi,” Reef said. “I’ve heard it said that our bodies are not ours and we are only renting them from God.”

He said his future goal is to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv. The 21-year-old said he is happy to be on a cohesive team and his goal right now is to win every game. He said it’s fun to play with all his teammates who are talented, especially Ryan Turell, who is being scouted by at least two NBA teams and in June could be the first known Orthodox player drafted.

Reef said with Turell on the court, they believe they can beat anyone.

“When we get him the ball, it’s fun because it’s almost impossible to stop him from scoring,” Reef said. The team also has hulking grad student Gabriel Leifer who is 6’6, knocks opposing players around with his physicality and recently became the fourth player in school history to reach 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and he also has the school record for assists. He recently became the player with the second most ever career rebounds in school history and has 1,111. The team boasts three-point marksman Eitan Halpert and has good size in 6’8 center and grad student Jordan Armstrong.

“We have a strong team and believe we can win every game, but we know we can’t take any game lightly,” Reef said. “One challenge, especially if we’re up by a lot of points, is to not get bored. We can’t lose our focus, especially on defense.”

AS TO why he came to YU, he said he had a talk with head coach Elliot Steinmetz and occasionally he has some Israeli-style reactions to his coach.

“He said ‘you can go sit on the bench anywhere or you can come here, get a lot of playing time and be on a team with a great group of guys,’” Reef recalled the coach as saying. “Coach Steinmetz and I have had some heated exchanges,” Reef said. “He is a great coach. He knows I play with a lot of emotion.”

Reef said he will never forget playing during the insanity of the pandemic, when fans were understandably banned and a game in Baltimore sticks out in his mind.

“It was like something out of a strange movie... very eerie,” Reef said. “The stands were empty. There were four or five doctors there. The people who cleaned the floor were in hazmat suits. It was crazy.”

He was upset about losing the last two post-seasons due to the pandemic, saying it was tough.

“You kind of wonder in your head if you have a right to your feelings,” Reef said. “I was angry. But people were losing their lives and nothing is more important than life. For me, I came to win and it was hard to deal with games just being canceled for two years in a row. Part of me is angry at myself that I was angry, but it was not a situation anyone could have predicted.”

Reef, who went to Yavneh Academy in Texas for high school, said a funny thing about playing for YU is that opponents who see a team with many of the players wearing yarmulkes are still confused, but for different reasons.

“For some teams, when they play us, it’s the first or second time they’re meeting Jews,” he said. “A few years ago, you could see on their faces the look of ‘what’s going on? How are they beating us?’ Now, we have a reputation and everyone knows about us. So the look is now: ‘How can we stop them from scoring?’”

The team uses an unusual motion offense that doesn’t have set plays and relies on the players to communicate on the court through hand signals or shouting.

“On offense, we don’t know what we’re going to do so our opponent for sure doesn’t know what we’re going to do,” Reef said.

What does this player eat to fuel him to be able to dominate opponents?

“Schnitzel,” Reef laughed.

Reef is fluent in Hebrew and when asked if he curses at the officials in Hebrew if they make a bad call, he said he doesn’t.

“I talk to the refs in English because I want them to know what I am saying,” Reef said.

 GUARD ADI MARKOVICH moved from Israel last year. (credit: YU ATHLETICS)
GUARD ADI MARKOVICH moved from Israel last year. (credit: YU ATHLETICS)

HE DOES talk to teammate Adi Markovich in Hebrew when they are on the court together as it gives them an advantage.

Markovich, 24, is a 6’2 guard from Beersheba. He left Israel last year to come to Washington Heights and attend YU. He said serving in a military police unit for the IDF helped him become a stronger person. Markovich comes off the bench and provides stellar defense and is full of energy, often diving on the floor for loose balls.

Asked if there were any similarities between training for the Army and basketball, he said there were some.

“Obviously there are many differences,” Markovich said. “But you have to have discipline, you have to have toughness and you have to make sure to be on time.”

The team practices at 6 a.m. to avoid scheduling conflicts. Markovich said the team has a great bond and doesn’t take its opportunity to make history for granted.

Markovich scored 11 points in a game last February, but the team has so many scorers that there isn’t a need for him to focus on offense.

He said it took a little while to get used to life in a new country.

“It was a big adjustment,” Markovich said. “I never saw real snow before I came here. Also, I wanted to make sure I found places that had good hummus.”

Fans of the team in Israel and elsewhere can watch home games on where a student-run broadcast produced by Akiva Poppers puts on an impressive show. The site includes links to broadcasts by opposing teams for road games, if those teams have broadcasted games.

While Turell made history scoring 51 points in a game, Yuval Nitzan made school history, scoring 41 points in a 77-74 victory over Farmingdale State, giving her the most points scored in a game in YU women’s basketball history. The team captain shot 14-22 from the field and 5-7 from three-point land while grabbing seven rebounds.

“I had the ‘yad chama,’” she said, using the Hebrew phrase for “ hot hand.” She was named the Skyline Conference Player of the Week. Nitzan leads the team in scoring, averaging 17.5 points per game with five assists and 4.2 rebounds a game.

Nitzan, 23, grew up near Ashdod before moving to Rodef Sharon near Herzliya.

“Since I was young, it was my dream to study and play basketball in the US,” said Nitzan, who is 5’6.

The ORT Rabin Gan Yavne graduate went on school tours with her father and got offers to play basketball from a school in West Virginia, one in New Jersey and YU.

“We saw the university, the people were nice, the facilities were great and me and my dad were like ‘okay, here.’ It’s a great environment and there are a lot of Israelis.”

She previously served in the IDF for two years and hopes for a job in finance. She came to YU in August 2019, but the school closed in March 2020. Returning to Israel for seven months and taking classes on Zoom, with a seven-hour time difference, was tough for her.

“I am very happy to be in person again with classes and have the real college experience,” she said. “I had to buy a lot of warm clothes because it’s so cold here. And I had to get used to how everything is expensive. But that’s New York.”

Nitzan played basketball in Israel with Shai Rahamim and told her to come to YU to play basketball. The two were roommates last year. Nitzan said the team has fast players but lacks overall height and the team doesn’t have a very deep bench. Rahamim, the starting shooting guard, is averaging 14.8 points per game. Though the team is 4-7, they’ve won two of the last four games and say they are improving.

Rahamim, 22, from Ramat Gan is a graduate of Blich High School, and also served in the IDF. She said the team focuses on fundamentals and is looking to focus on defense. Nitzan and Rahamim are almost always on the court together.

“We always talk to each other in Hebrew, especially on out-of bounds plays when we are passing the ball in-bounds,” Rahamim said. “Players on other teams sometimes get angry and ask what we are saying.”

The sophomore also said when she gets mad at the ref, she will talk in Hebrew.

She said making the adjustment to New York was much easier having her friend to show her the ropes.

“She also told me the defense is different here,” she said of Nitzan. “She prepared me that in Israel you can guard someone and touch them and as long as you don’t push them or make an aggressive move, it’s not a foul. Here, the second you touch someone, even a little, it’s a foul. It’s very different, but you get used to it pretty fast.”

She moved to YU last year during the pandemic.

“It was weird to see empty streets,” she recalled. “But things are better now. It’s a great Jewish environment and people are excited to talk to me when they know I’m Israeli and they tell me about their family in Israel. So, while it is a new place, it’s very supportive.”

Both players praised head coach Bill Zatulskis.

Rahamim says she hoped one day, a player for the YU women’s team would be drafted into the WNBA. She also said she loves to just walk around New York.

“There’s always something great to see,” she said. “It’s never enough.” ■